To Shadow or Not? And Why?

It’s one of the biggest issues in sponsored research management. Do you create shadow systems to track awards, and if so, why? Institutions have huge bureaucracies that manage grants and contracts – and to create additional shadow systems to track financial data are not only repetitive, but soul killing. However, I would argue it is necessary.

Yep, necessary. Why?

Principal investigators find that most accounting reports from university financial offices fail them for three reasons:

Problem #1. Standard accounting reports are produced on a fiscal year basis, not on a project year basis. PI’s need accounting information on the grant year.

Problem #2. Accounting reports from the university are often produced with a lot of extra jargon and data that PI’s don’t understand and need. It gets in the way of the PI’s need to scan the report for the data that they are looking for.

Problem #3. Reports don’t have enough detail for the PI’s about the staff on the project (often HR data is on separate reports) or subcontracts which have been paid.

A tracking report for a PI can provide the level of detail that a PI needs, while peeling off the extraneous data that gets in the way.

A shadow tracking system is successful however, if the following occurs consistently:

1. The reports need to be provided on a regular basis, usually monthly.

2. The Excel formulas should be used in the spreadsheets to generate projections, totals, etc. Double check all entries entered by hand.)

3. The reports should be checked against the accounting report generated by the University for accuracy.

Automating this process whenever possible is advisable. The benefits to PIs and research administrators to have this tool, which not only allows the PI to see how the project’s finances are managed, but can be used to project out expenses. It can assist with conversations with project officers about financial issues a year in advance and facilitate complex conversations about moving dollars around effectively. Looking at the project this way can prevent those surprises about finances in the last ninety days of a project – when the PI didn’t realize there was a deficit or more money to spend.

Many PI’s do not enjoy the financial management of projects. However, when a spreadsheet is organized in the terms of the project year, with the primary information related to the project budget (staff, items from the project, subcontractors, etc.) they find it easier to use. It becomes a project management tool that a research administrator can ask questions about, and less a financial report with terms that are unfamiliar.

Setting up the spreadsheet takes a little time, but once you have something your PI’s like, you can continue to use it and it becomes a question of updating the data each month. It’s worth the effort.

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