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Pay it Forward: Stewardship in Academia

I often write about the academic grant world. This time around, I decided to share my spin on a borrowed concept: stewardship.

From the Oxford Dictionary: “Stewardship - the job of supervising or taking care of something, such as an organization or property.”

I have learned about stewardship from my foundation and philanthropic counterparts. Development officers may expand their application of this concept from the Oxford definition as “continually expanding the relationship between an institution and its donors.” This relates to the stewardship of gifts or monetary awards by thanking donors and sharing with them how the money has contributed to the mission of the organization.

I have taken to heart the concept of stewardship. Working in the federal research grant realm, what is the significance of this word? The spirit of stewardship is my intent to make my institution a better place than when I came. I have chosen to do so in several ways.

  • Thank faculty, collaborating staff, and colleagues. A thankfulness-themed blog that I read on a grant consultant's website inspired me to write a thank you card each month for a year. Initially, I applied this concept by thanking a colleague for sharing their time or insight. I have recently taken this a step further. Now, when I finish a grant project, I send a thank you email to the principal investigator or the grant team, telling them how much I enjoyed working with them and specifically indicating that I learned from them. 
  • Volunteer for campus-wide activities. One of the things I love to do at my institution is to serve as a “Grad Slam” judge of graduate student's 3-minute presentations on their thesis work. In addition, I recently gave a presentation on Individual Development Plans and scholar essay writing to postdocs. While I do not often work with students or postdocs, they are a critical element of the academic research ecosystem. Because I believe in the science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) grant writing pipeline, volunteering in the academic community is how I can serve as a steward of my institution's capacity for building the grant know-how of its constituents.
  • Share information with colleagues. I get a burst of happiness from sharing my tips and tools with fellow grant professionals. I often get inquiries from colleagues about my own process, and I share templates and presentations I have created. In turn, I do learn more about what they do and how my tricks-of-the-trade can be developed, improved, or applied to new uses. I enjoy GPA's Grant Chat on Twitter, helping build a grants community, and I particularly appreciated the session on grant gratitude. In a sense, I am a steward of the grant profession when I build my relationships with other grant professionals.
  • Teach others how to do new things or find information. It takes time to show someone how to do things related to grants, i.e., search NIH Reporter, use Endnote, or put figures into grants. I have turned some of these efforts into written guidance that I can distribute more widely among my department constituents and beyond. These activities build institutional capacity, even if there is no direct impact or benefit to my own work or needs.

My academically inspired definition of stewardship is the following: expanding the relationship between the academic grant professional and the faculty, staff, and other colleagues to cultivate knowledge and appreciation of all things related to grants.

Who has not seen—and been inspired by—the movie, Pay it Forward?
Michele Zacks is a biomedical grant professional who works with clinical, translational, and basic science research faculty on federal and peer-reviewed foundation proposals, a specialty recently branded as research development. She persistently seeks to build relationships in tandem with imparting grantsmanship while advising her faculty clients.