Grants Management and its Discontents

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

December 8, 2014

Grants ManagementHere’s a description of the book I wish somebody would write about grants management for grantmakers. The working title is “Continuing Configuration of Grants Management Systems,” although I hope the real title would be more inspiring. But before we describe the book, a little bit about grants management in general.

I’ve been watching foundations and their grants management efforts for some years now, although I’ve never been a grants manager. What it’s taught me is that I’d never want to be a grants manager. Grants management strikes me as an ongoing slog with no relief in sight. I’d love somebody to prove me wrong, but here’s what has brought me to my current position.

Although the last survey of grantmaker’s information technology said that 61 percent of respondents were very or somewhat satisfied with their grants management software, people I’ve talked to have not been that satisfied. The same survey also said that more than 50 percent of respondents will have changed their grants management software vendor in the last 5 years, by next year. That strikes me as a lot of change for happy campers.

Why would foundations be unhappy with their grants management systems? Let’s look at this from two sides, what demands are made on grants management systems, and how good is the software at providing it?

Continuing Demands for Grants Management Change

I’m not sure we’ve kept track of all the things grants management systems, and their managers, are supposed to do. In addition to the basic ones of providing a repository for all grants, tracking their progress, arranging for payment, and reporting for budgetary purposes, much more has been asked. Much of this has been in the name of better service to grantees, such as reducing the time from letter of intent to payment, streamlining the application process, and simplifying and standardizing the grant application across foundations. But there has also been a demand for transparency, as the Glass Pockets initiative illustrates, and demands for much better use of grants management data. Also, a continuing goal is the finish the transition from paper-based grantmaking to a process without paper.

The grant review process always needs improvement, whether to make review possible for remote users, users outside the organization, or users who choose to review on their tablets or smartphones.

Data from grants management systems can populate dashboards, so that grantmakers can keep ongoing track of what they’re doing. Data can be used for the overall evaluation of grantmaking effectiveness. such as by measuring the percentage of LOIs or full proposals that result in funding. There has been a surge of interest in including monitoring and evaluation data in grants management systems, as well.

The point is that there always seems to be more to do. In theory, this is good: more service to grantees, more intelligent grantmaking, more convenience for program officers. But how well is all this working in practice?

Grants Management Technology Issues

Looking on the technology side, the leading grants management supplier, MicroEdge, has come in for a lot of criticism for being hard to modify. This has partly been due to limitations in the software and partly due to a preference for MicroEdge support’s involvement to be necessary to make significant changes. In a world where the grants management system is constantly being asked to do new things, as we mentioned above, this can be a problem.

It would be nice to say that other vendors have overcome this problem, and perhaps some have. With some software, such as FoundationConnect, the problem takes on other dimensions. FoundationConnect is built on Salesforce, so it’s fairly easy to modify. The problem here is that this requires third-party consultants who may not be all that experienced in what foundations need. The result can be systems that are designed less on the basis of best practices than on a mutual learning process between consultants and grants managers. What is missing is a clear picture of what the most important variables are and how they can be assembled into workflows that are simple enough to be adopted, yet comprehensive enough to provide all the necessary data for evaluation.

A major factor in all of this is adoption. The “classic” version of GIFTS, for example, is generally considered to be hard to use, particularly if you don’t use it often. For other systems, adoption can fail because the processes designed to get the right data are too cumbersome, perhaps because of inexperienced consultants, grants managers and feature creep.

This brings us back to the book I wish somebody would write. It would say, “This, this and this are the data we need in a grants management system. That’s all we need; collecting more just makes life difficult. Here are the workflows we need to collect, store and report that data. They shouldn’t be more complicated than this. Here are the recommended number of sign-offs during the process. You may need more, but try to keep them at a minimum.”

The book would continue, “While this is a general discussion of the right data points and related workflows, the appendices to this book provide concrete examples of how this can be achieved in MicroEdge’s and other leading systems, including the best way to modify them when demands on your system change.”

So, which one of you fine readers is going to write this book?


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