Values-Based Budgeting Supports Transformational Humanities Research

Jenna Zieman
Jenna Zieman

Over the course of eight-plus years of the Humanities Without Walls consortium (HWW), one of the key lessons to emerge is the essential role that business operations officers play in realizing the intellectual outcomes of the grant—and why they should be at the table from the beginning of each project. This was especially evident in the final research call of the Grand Research Challenge, which emphasized HWW’s core research methodologies of reciprocity and redistribution. While some applicants waxed poetically in the narrative section about these methodologies, the budget line items often did not mirror these sentiments. It was a structural issue, one that Jenna Zieman aims to repair by implementing—and advocating for—a values-based, participatory budgeting model.

Zieman is the Budget and Finance Manager for the Humanities Without Walls consortium (HWW), headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute (HRI). She oversees and administers five grants supported by the Mellon Foundation on behalf of HRI, with HWW being the largest and longest-running grant. She supports individuals and teams daily in navigating funding and resource allocation processes, and manages all pre-awards, post awards, sub awards, invoices, re-budgets, and financial reporting for the institute and the consortium’s $14M grant portfolio. As a state employee, she does all of this while also ensuring adherence to the layers of rules and regulations mandated by the state of Illinois. Zieman also works closely with Antoinette Burton, HRI Director and HWW Principal Investigator (PI), Nancy Castro, HRI Deputy Director, and Peggy Brennan, Associate Director of HWW, when implementing strategic planning initiatives for both the institute and the consortium.

“I think about 25 percent of my job is figuring out how to make things happen. I have a part in taking bigger picture ideas and getting them down into workable projects,” Zieman shared. “Antoinette and Nancy are very receptive to my ideas. They create an environment where they want me to weigh in, and they understand the importance of how the business side of things can make or break a project.”

Cross-Institutional Challenges

Zieman’s work, while rewarding, can often be difficult at every step. Particularly for Humanities Without Walls, it’s a challenge navigating the added layer of other institutions’ sponsored program administration offices, distributing funding in a timely manner, and working across multiple systems and contexts in a logical way. It requires an understanding of people, systems, organizations, and of course, financial expertise. Zieman has these attributes in spades.

“Our HWW programs rely upon Jenna’s aptitude for navigating complex contracting and purchasing policies across a number of institutions—the University of Illinois, sixteen consortium partner universities, and the Mellon Foundation,” Brennan said. “We often turn to Jenna for her expert knowledge of the cross-institutional financial collaborations that make the work of HWW possible.”

Limited funding opportunities exist to support large-scale humanities research initiatives like HWW, including grants that cover indirect costs like administrative salaries, tuition remission, space, and lighting. However, Zieman believes in the importance of creating funding pathways to support interdisciplinary, collaborative humanities work at public institutions. To her, it serves as a way to practice the kind of distribution of resources often associated with social justice projects.

From Zieman’s perspective, values-based budgeting needs to be part of the conversation at the onset of planning every interdisciplinary research project. The subtleties in budgeting documents—internally referred to as budget forensics—are both practical, in an operational sense, but can also be an equalizing force. This is not just a theoretical mindset, but a practical tool.

“Start from the budget and resource allocation. That is an amazing organizing methodology, when you're thinking about a project or a grant application,” Zieman said. “Using that as the structure for your programs can be so helpful. When you're starting from scratch, and trying to create a program, it's difficult to do that without some sort of structure to hang things on, and the budget exists as a great tool to do that.”

People-First Process

Coming up with the idea for a grant proposal, in Zieman’s estimation, is usually the easiest part of the whole process. Executing the HWW grant’s terms, however, takes a committed team that often consists of individuals across institutions of higher learning and can include individuals with expertise in various disciplines. Zieman also observed that it can be difficult for PIs and researchers to identify business operations officers as true partners, as individuals who have critical ideas to share apart from the practical distribution of dollars and cents.

In fact, Zieman deliberated with HWW consortial partners, faculty, and administrators when the final round of funding was allocated for HWW’s Grand Research Challenge competition, guiding the selection committee as they worked to read applicants’ budgets and budget categories through HWW’s signature reciprocal and redistributive lens.

“It’s key that staff like Jenna be part of the conceptual design of a grant from the start,” Burton stressed. “Faculty and even administrators may not realize how critical the role of budgetary and financial officers can be in helping to realize the research goals beyond the nitty gritty of numbers.”

Brennan agreed: “Jenna’s work with HWW demonstrates how crucial it is for university business managers and sponsored programs staff to be in collaborative relationship with the faculty PIs who oversee publicly engaged research projects.”

Collaborative relationship building is an essential part of grant management, according to Zieman. Every financial transaction has an impact on an organization’s financial viability. But the work itself is far from transactional.

“It’s always been about personal relationships,” Zieman emphasized. “It’s important to treat people with respect. That can go a long way. I see my role as: ‘I am partnering with researchers to make things happen.’”

Published on November 6, 2023