Vetting an offer of partnership

Particularly in large museums and informal science education organizations, it is helpful to have a system in place for coordinating decisions on partnership proposals generated by other organizations, including university research groups, that will help guide these discussions in alignment with the proactive assessment we have conducted.

As we have seen, education outreach partnership offers can often arrive from researchers with little warning, and not necessarily to the staff member one would expect. So, it is important to have a policy and procedure in place for receiving, analyzing and vetting partnership proposals. Who will need to sign off on proposed partnerships and agreements? What should the internal vetting processes entail? How will the procedure differ for extremely short-notice proposals? What minimum criteria should we try to maintain?

Have a structure in place for handling incoming partnership decisions
The larger and more complex the organization, the more internal stakeholders will likely require consultation when a new partnership offer arrives. These may include managers whose staff will carry out the work and who will need to allocate time, resources, materials and scheduling. If the partnership will involve a contractual agreement with a federal funding agency, or with a lead organization, it will require the involvement of fiduciary and grants management officers.

Some museums set up standing committees and set internal review deadlines for grants and partnership proposals, with concomitant operational procedures. These can provide structures and standards for considering external proposals, but they can also reduce the organization’s ability to respond nimbly to compelling and potentially valuable joint-venture offers. When the prospective partner is asking for a last-minute letter of support, with little opportunity left for collaborative planning and no specific resources or budgeting, the proposal can be relatively easy to take a pass on. Such an approach from a potential partner can signal further problems down the road; the partner may prove generally unreliable, or lacking in collaborative planning and management skills.

However, when the prospective partner is sincere, and offering something that could be of real value to the museum and its audiences in alignment with the organizational mission and priorities, we are often motivated to lean over backwards to try to negotiate on the foreshortened timeline something that we think will work for all involved. This is much easier to do if the potential partner is open to including adequate resources in the budget and possibly a sub-award or subcontract, although that means that a lot of administrative factors need to happen rather quickly, including consultation with the staff who would be involved, budgeting, and submission of proper forms. Federal grant proposals are typically filed up to a year in advance of the proposed start date, and they can cover multiple years of effort beyond the start date if they are funded. (Fortunately, in the post-award environment reasonable changes in work plans and budgets can usually be made by agreement of both parties and by the funding agency; however, there will not be an opportunity at that point to negotiate for more resources.).

Thus it is very helpful to have a plan in place for assessing and responding to proposals initiated from outside the institution. Decide in advance who should be consulted, what questions should be answered and what priorities should guide the negotiations with the partner. Have contingency plans for rapid responses. Some museums have developed standardized forms for collecting and distributing necessary information to stakeholders. These can include fields for gathering information the who, what, where, how, and how long of the proposed partnership, as well as specific information on funding agency, program, pre- and full proposal due dates, start and end dates, resources required (staff, space, equipment, evaluation, network support), and sign-offs from key stakeholders.

Negotiating a plan

Sometimes we find ourselves a bit stumped by the topic of the research project being proposed to us as an education outreach opportunity. Scientists don’t get funding for “An introduction to nuclear physics;” they get funding for something much more specific, advanced, and esoteric sounding. We may find ourselves embarrassed to admit that we don’t understand what they are talking about when they first describe the subject of their research. Do not panic. This is why they need us. They don’t yet know how to describe their research in a way that reasonably intelligent people (we) can understand. Carey Tisdale, an independent evaluation consultant, says the biggest thing getting in the way of science museum staff working with scientists is that we get intimidated too easily by their command of their subject area. We need to “own our expertise,” she says; and have the confidence that – while they might be the experts in condensed matter theory – we are experts in understanding what it’s going to take to engage a lay audience. [Tisdale 2010] We need to take a few deep breaths, and begin to ask the series of questions that will help us understand what their research is about: what is its underlying motivation? why should we care? what’s new that hasn’t been done before? what do they think is cool about it? what does this term mean – and that one…? Being confident about our ISE expertise means that even if the scientist thinks they have the perfect way to communicate a particular concept to our audiences; if we are doubtful it will work, we need to be assertive about modifications and alternatives, and the reasons why we are suggesting them. We may even need to gently insist that a much simpler, broader, more introductory approach to the entire subject area is probably in order, before we can hope to get into the nitty gritty details. We may even suggest that we explore a wide range of approaches to the scientific quest, including the researcher’s own approach, so that we can provide the best context for communicating their research. It’s our job, after all, to serve our audiences; to use our expertise to meet them where they are, and gently take their hand and guide them somewhere new. And, in a sense, that is what we may also do with our prospective partners: listen to their ideas, ask many questions, and share our thoughts. It could be that they are also coming to you with an idea already in their head about the exhibit that should be built, or the lecture that could be given. And they may not realize what it truly takes to build a good exhibit or why the museum needs to stick to the unfolding of a particular exhibit plan for its galleries, or why a lecture may not fit into next season’s programmatic themes, or attract the kind of audience they might hope for. These considerations can all be discussed and negotiated, and you can begin to enroll them in the skeleton of a plan that might work – for you, for them, and for the intended audiences.

The second part of negotiation is about the financial and resource support for these activities they will provide from their grant award, if it is funded. Even if they’ve come to you late, and they’ve already allocated large chunks of the budget, and there’s no time to draw up a new budget, it is still important to insist on support commensurate with the scope, and for you to be able to include that agreed upon amount in the letter of support. There is usually some give in a budget, at least enough to get a small partnership started. Section 5: Getting a Grant has more detailed information on budgeting an education outreach initiative with a partner.

Preparing to meet the requirements of granting agencies
Smaller or newer institutions that have not had the benefit of much prior experience in applying for and managing federal grants can do additional groundwork to help prepare for that time when they are facing a proposal deadline in collaboration with a research institution proposal. With advance preparation, they are more likely to be able to join the proposal as a fuller partner or subawardee.

In particular, they can designate a grants management staff person, register with federal granting agencies and obtain an institutional ID number, familiarize themselves with the rules and obligations of federal granting agencies, work through the process of establishing an Indirect Cost Rate (IDC), and either set up their own Institutional Review Board, or seek an agreement to occasionally call upon the services of the IRB of a local, sympathetic institution, such as a university.

Universities and some large science museums have designated grants management personnel responsible for fiscal reporting and financial and legal compliance. In universities and at federal funding agencies, the term often used is “sponsored research officer.” These administrators track the organization’s current and pending grant proposals and manage compliance, reporting and auditing requirements. A large museum or university may have at any given time multiple proposals pending at various funding agencies, either as the designated lead organization or as a sub-awardee. In small and medium-sized science museums, a member of the finance or accounting department can help shepherd the organization through the process. Applicant organizations and prospective PIs may need to register with the granting agencies ahead of time. The organization must also go through a preliminary process with one of the federal agencies to establish their IDC or overhead rate. We strongly urge museums to initiate this process if they have not already done so. Various government websites provide counsel on this process.

Institutional Review Boards
Research and evaluation (R&E) are increasingly important aspects of education and outreach (E&O), and grant program officers are looking for evidence that ISE and E&O programs incorporate R&E and use it to improve programs and to inform the field. Any surveying, observing, testing, interviewing, or other forms of research and evaluation with adults and particularly children (minors 18 and under) are subject to approval by an Institutional Review Board. The purpose of the IRB is to ensure that all “human subjects” are clearly informed about their privacy rights, the sponsorship and eventual use of the data being collected, and of their right to decline to participate. The sponsor of the research has to outline to the IRB the potential risks and benefits of the R&E plan, and any possible harm it might cause to an individual’s well-being. The rules are stricter surrounding the participation of minors and require parent or guardian sign-off, and since science museums focus on serving children and teens, these requirements have real impact. Most federal agencies now require proposals that include ISE R&E to have them put through an IRB screening process; however, since that process can take weeks, it is often enough to have obtained an IRB commitment to review the plan. Obtaining that commitment can also take days or weeks, and so, having access to an IRB and understanding its process is just about essential for any science museum that wants to be prepared to join in a really good grant proposal opportunity.

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