Is it possible to say anything actionable about appropriate IT for measuring the social impact of a foundation’s grants beyond, “It depends?” How’s this for an answer? “Yes and no.”
Almost a year ago, I posted a piece here about how foundations had several questions to answer before they could decide what technology to use. I ended up at “You really won’t know what data analysis capacity you should adopt until you’ve decided what you will ask it to do.” That is, “It depends.”
I think that’s still true, but it also can be a strategic consultant’s cop-out.
The Limits of Grants Management Systems
Clearly, there’s a big difference between technology to keep track of how many grants you make, etc., and their impact on the community. The first one you can do with your grants management system; the second one, no.
This is a useful, if frustrating, answer. Foundations should stop trying to get their grants management systems to do more than they can. Once you’ve accepted that, it’s a great relief. Usually, however, I’ve seen foundations decide to get a better grants management system. The grants management systems vendors don’t help here, because they all claim they can do impact evaluation. Then it turns out to be harder than expected.
But beyond what a system can’t do, what can it do? Grants management systems can tell you a lot. They can be the repository for all your grant information. Also, they can contain evaluations of grantees, along the lines of whether they delivered what they promised. They can provide data to evaluate the grantmaking process, such as how long it took from first contact (LOI or proposal) to getting, or not getting, a check. So yes, you need a grants management system.
But how do you answer questions about how the community’s health improved, or whether new jobs were created, and what that had to do with the services your grantee provided? This will require more complex data gathering and analysis. What application does that?
You may need flexibility. Salesforce is an example of flexibility, in that there is a very basic database management system that can be customized in lots and lots of ways to do other things. Two big problems exist here, however. The first is that you really must know exactly what you want in order to build it. The second is you must pay somebody to build it. Still, it may be the answer, adapting different Salesforce apps to different evaluation situations.
Another flexible application is Tableau. If you haven’t noticed, it’s gone way beyond Tableau Desktop and now has applications to do things like preparing your data for analysis. It’s beefed up its analytical capabilities significantly beyond just being a visualization tool. It also has ways to put applications into Web pages for sharing online.
Several other insights about grantmaking are also affecting what technology we use. For example, qualitative data is often as important as quantitative, so you must be able to manage that. Where do you store your stories?
Finally, as I run for cover, I say, “There’s always Excel…”
So, instead of saying “It depends,” I’ll say, “God give you the patience to use the applications you have, the courage to try new things when you must, and the wisdom to know the difference.”