by Chelsea Nash, CFICE Communications Research Assistant

A desk scattered with paper clips, financial documents, a calculator, and a teacup.Working with an institution as large as a university can be a daunting, challenging task filled with moving parts and bureaucratic hoops to jump through.

For a community organization, tackling the challenges that come with a partnership with a post-secondary institution can be time-consuming, particularly if it’s relatively new territory. This is where administrators—experts in things like financial reporting and institutional coordination—come in.

In CFICE’s first four years, administrative duties were found to be a bit of a burden, particularly for community partners, who are often already stretched thin for time. In the Violence Against Women hub, for instance, the academic co-lead took on an administrative role so that the community partner could have more time and energy for hub projects. “As a senior academic, the academic co-lead was less vulnerable to academic publishing pressures and thus able to take over these kinds of duties without jeopardizing her career,” the year 4 summary report reads.

While that division of duties worked in some ways, there were also challenges. Community partners at times felt that the academic co-lead had more control over things like drafting and soliciting proposals. “It does require trust and it does require consultation and comfort with handing over that responsibility to someone else,” a community partner said.

Hiring a professional administrator to handle the ins and outs of funding applications, university bureaucracy, and to advocate for the project can provide an opportunity for capacity building for both community and academic partners.

Portrait of Genevieve Harrison, CFICE's Project Administrator

Genevieve Harrison is CFICE’s Project Administrator.

Having an administrator on your team “is more important when you’re dealing with an institution, because each department in an institution is a separate entity, and a separate landscape,” says Genevieve Harrison, the administrator for the CFICE project. Administrators have “the ability to tie those things together” and to “keep communication going,” Harrison said.

In addition to her role as the CFICE Project Administrator, Harrison wears many other administrative hats, including being the administrator for the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation, (which houses the CFICE project).

Harrison uses her skills to:

  • Ensure CFICE is in compliance with the funder
  • Handle financial reporting
  • Co-ordinate between institutions
  • Handle all project HR needs.

Needless to say, the CFICE project would not be where it is today without her involvement.

Harrison, who is well-versed in the requirements of both the university and of the project funder, says the most important function of her position is “ensuring the project team has the best information for decision making. There’s a lot of moving parts in the project, and making sure that people are up to date with what is happening financially can help them make decisions,” she told CFICE.

In addition to navigating bureaucracy and policy, a good administrator approaches a project with flexibility, patience, empathy and diplomacy.

“You’re in the middle dealing with people who have problems, and people who you’re trying to help resolve their issues. You’re sort of like the broker in that sense,” Harrison said. “It’s important to understand the constraints and limitations that people are dealing with” in order to best help them, she added.

While a good administrator can benefit a project’s capacity building, decision making, and general organization, project leaders can also take steps to effectively work with the administrator, maximizing her skills to the best of their ability.

Harrison says one important way to do this is to remember to involve your administrator early on in discussions, and to always advise them of what your plans are. That way, the administrator has the opportunity to guide the project leaders through the system, rather than trying to problem solve when it might already be too late.

“I think it’s important to remember that the administrator is on their side and that the administrator works for the project. I think there’s the perception that sometimes the administrator works for the university,” Harrison says, often because the administrator is put into the position of advising on what restrictions or limitations a project must adhere to, per university or funder policy, for instance.

A cartoon of a lit lightbulb drawn on a yellow sticky note pinned to a cork board.But, while administrators cannot change the policies, they are experts in problem solving.

“One of the key principles that I try to keep in mind, is the attitude of ‘how can we do this?’ Quite often when dealing with an institution the answers are ‘you can’t do that.’ So finding a way to do things is really important,” Harrison adds.

While hiring an administrator might seem like an added cost to your project, they really can save time, resources, and add to your capacity in the community.

Try building in the cost of an administrator into your funding proposal to begin with. Once you’ve had an administrator working with you, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without!

2 thoughts on “The Important Role of Project Administrators in CCE”

  1. Phil says:

    Good point though at what size would you recommend hiring one?, both in terms of $ and complexity?

    1. nicolebedford says:

      This is a great question Phil, and one that all projects grapple with. Questions I would ask myself when planning a project and deciding whether or not to hire an administrator would include things like: How efficient am I at tracking budgets/using our financial system/processing travel claims/etc.? How familiar am I with the administrative networks, systems, and processes at my organization and can I easily navigate these? How much TIME do I think I will end up spending on this type of work as a result of my skills (and how much time do I even want to spend on administrative tasks)? If I think about my time in terms of dollars per hour, will I be spending MORE “money” putting my time towards administrative tasks, or would it actually be less money to hire a project administrator who will complete admin tasks much quicker and more efficiently than me?

      I also think complexity is a big factor too (less so than how much money you have). Being the Project Manager of CFICE, I can say that it gets pretty complicated processing transactions (payroll/travel/invoices/etc.) and tracking budgets for the various funds/working groups/hubs associated with our project. Over our grant term, we have involved over 60 different partners, plus countless students, and a handful of contractors, which has meant that tracking where our grant money goes, how it’s used, and how its reported on is a lot of work. We wouldn’t be nearly as productive research-wise if we had to spend our time overseeing all the minute details of administration that our Project Administrator currently oversees. And I don’t think it has to do with the amount of money either, unless your initial project budget was pretty complicated. I think it has to do with project size and the number of partners involved because if your project is smaller, and more straight forward (e.g. partner A gets X amount for Y single project), then you will see far fewer transactions taking place and far less complexity when it comes to reporting on those transactions.

      Overall, I truly believe CFICE wouldn’t be as efficient or productive in terms of our on-the-ground work and knowledge mobilization without the help of our Project Administrator, because we’d be spending a whole lot more time just tracking the money. So I believe that hiring a project administrator is almost always worth it, even if you’re hiring the person part time, because then you can focus on the parts of the project that you’re best at, and that matter most–doing the work, sharing the results, helping the people you most want to help, and ultimately, creating the change you want to see!

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