How to Frame Your Grants Management System Selection

grants management

Written by Dan Callahan

I am a Senior Technical Advisor to CGNET. Formerly, I managed our Cybersecurity and Cloud Services businesses, and provided consulting to many clients over the years. I wear a lot of hats. Professionally, I'm a builder of businesses. Outside of work, I'm a hobby farmer, chef, skier, dog walker, jokester, woodworker, structuralist, husband and father.

April 14, 2022

Is it something about Spring? In just the last couple of days two organizations have asked me about helping them choose a new grants management system. And folks have been actively discussing how to update the grant application user experience to make it more centered around the grantee. For philanthropies, the grants management system engenders strong reactions.

  • For some, the system is great. The workflow runs smoothly, and reports are easy to produce.
  • For others, the system is a source of frustration. Users have created their own workflows to manage the grant process. However, they must duplicate data entry so the grants management system will give them the reporting they want.
  • I would guess that the largest block of users has learned to coexist with the system. For these users, the most important feature of the grants management system is “export to an Excel file.”

What, then, is the best way to approach the search for—and implementation of—a new grants management system? My answer: it depends.

Typical consultant!

Before I discuss the alternative approaches, let me touch on the “textbook” approach.


The “textbook” approach to Grants Management system selection has a “waterfall” project planning flavor. First, we gather requirements for the system. Then we rank them in priority order. We might weight them as well.

Next comes analysis. We assess how well the selected Grants Management system vendors stack up against the requirements. While doing this, we know the analysis is inexact, because we subjectively assess how well each system delivers against the requirements.

Then we choose the “winning” Grants Management system. Now the real fun begins—implementation. We work with the system vendor to develop a (hopefully) complete project plan. We begin building the new system. At the same time, we create a plan for first coexisting with the current Grants Management system and later migrating data to the new system and shutting down the legacy system.

This approach to a new Grants Management system sounds great. Maybe a little too great. The process encourages us to think that we have captured the entire grant process. Often, this is far from the case. Sometimes we discover requirements after we have finished implementation and are conducting testing. It is also possible that we did not fully understand the process until the Grants Management system tried to automate it. We might realize that we have specified an overly elaborate system, when a much simpler one would work about as well.

Go ahead and use this approach. (Actually, take a sample from all the approaches here.) Just be mindful of these questions.

  • What if we were wrong about how the grant process works?
  • Can we survive finding out that we missed an important requirement?
  • Can we make the Grants Management system simpler?

Start with the End in Mind

I recall a customer asking me to help design the workflow for getting eSignature into their grant process.

Me: “What are you trying to achieve with this change?”

Them: “We want to streamline the process and reduce the time it takes to reach a grant decision.”

Adding eSignature certainly streamlined the process. And it did take a day or two out of the grant process cycle time. But was that enough?

Sidenote: A Product Transformation Story

There was a time in my product days when we wanted to reduce the manufacturing time for a product from two weeks to two days. We also wanted to let the customer configure the product to meet their exact desires. Doing this was no easy task. But when we did, it completely transformed the business. The benefits rippled across sales, marketing, operations, and finance.

How did we do this? We started with a BHAG—a big, hairy audacious goal—and we examined every process to see how we could redesign it (or eliminate it) in support of our goal.

Break Out the Index Cards

I often advise folks who want to streamline their Grants Management system to start with the process. Visualize the entire process, from receiving an inquiry or inviting a grantee to apply, through the due diligence and decision phases, and out to the delivery of funds and eventual assessment of effectiveness.

I tell them to map the entire process out using note cards. Use one kind of note card to represent “something happens here.” Use another kind to represent what data is required (and where it comes from, and where it goes). Literally walk the note cards around to visualize how the process moves from one person or function to another. It is perfectly acceptable to have note cards that say, “somehow this occurs.”

Process improvement might not be the main goal for your new Grants Management system. Here are other possible desired outcomes.

  • Grantees can always see where we are in the decision process.
  • We strive to align with a common grant application (thank you TAG!) to make the grant application process less onerous.
  • We want to easily capture a view of our grantmaking in an area. This includes our total investment and the outcomes we have achieved or influenced.

You can see that these desired outcomes for a Grants Management system will drive different requirements and implementation choices. Get a clear picture of what you want the Grants Management system to do for you before you dive into the details. And be sure to understand what other stakeholders want as well. Can the system accommodate these different desired outcomes? Or do you need to build consensus toward one common outcome?

Plan a Little, Do a Little

Last weekend I helped build a one-story high deck for my niece. (Who thought that wrestling with 2×8 boards above your head was a good idea?) The experience gave me a renewed appreciation for building contractors. The plans said to attach the joist hanger right here. One problem: we could not fit it in there as it was too close to an earthquake hold-down. Do we shift everything over by an inch? The contractor’s response: bend the tabs on the bracket to make it fit.

Implementing any complex system (and a Grants Management system fits that category) has its share of surprises. Yes, you need the equivalent of your architectural plans. But you also must recognize that things will not always go according to those plans.

I find it useful to do a little detailed planning for the next step in the plan, then implement that step. Why? Because you will learn how well your plan is working. If you need to start over, you have not lost that much effort.

There is another benefit to this Grants Management system implementation approach. Most organizations use the new Grants Management system implementation as an opportunity to redesign their grant process. When you implement then, you are testing the new process as well as how the implementation supports the process. If you plan a little and do (implement) a little, you can use the time to test whether the process is working the way you intended.

This is a Multiple-Choice Question

I have described three different approaches to planning and implementing your Grants Management system. Which approach should you choose? Well, you should choose elements of each.

  • You might start by considering what you want the new system to do for the organization. What are your ultimate goals? Understanding that will help you make choices down the line.
  • Now that you are clear on goals, you can consider system requirements. Be sure to constrain folks as they offer suggestions. Give them $100 in Monopoly money and ask them to allocate it across their favorite requirements. Train folks to think about tradeoffs among requirements.
  • When you feel comfortable with your Grants Management system requirements, shift into the plan a little/do a little mode. Test and experiment. Throw out what does not work. Double down on promising changes.

Choosing and implementing a Grants Management system is no easy task. Use these approaches to get the best thinking into your plans and deliver the best results.

Written by Dan Callahan

I am a Senior Technical Advisor to CGNET. Formerly, I managed our Cybersecurity and Cloud Services businesses, and provided consulting to many clients over the years. I wear a lot of hats. Professionally, I'm a builder of businesses. Outside of work, I'm a hobby farmer, chef, skier, dog walker, jokester, woodworker, structuralist, husband and father.

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