Whether your grants management system (GMS) is a software tool that spans your entire grant lifecycle, a tool that plugs into one part of your process (like application management), or simply a really great spreadsheet, know that it is more than just a place to store data. When set up well, grants management systems provide invaluable institutional knowledge, streamline work, and can even enable organizations to smoothly introduce new approaches, like trust-based philanthropy or participatory grantmaking.
Too often, extensive effort is spent setting up grants management systems, and then staff turns over, organizational priorities shift, or there isn’t enough time for upkeep, leaving these systems neglected, outdated, and difficult to use. These resource challenges are omnipresent for nonprofits and foundations. To counteract them, whether you have an existing system or are developing anew, here are five things to consider that can help set your GMS up for long-term success.
1. Understand your needs and accept limitations.
You might wonder if your GMS can (or if you should get a new system that can) forecast budgets, generate dashboards, send progress report reminders, or provide another fancy, exciting functionality. While these may be good ideas in the big picture, throwing a laundry list of organizational aspirations at your system can be overwhelming, expensive, or time-consuming to address, if even possible at all. To set your system up for success, it is important to be open to ideas for elevating or evolving your system, but also keep in mind that your GMS is not a panacea. It is okay if your system does the core functions well (accepting applications, tracking grantee deliverables, storing approval records) and leaves ancillary functions (processing disbursements, compiling Board updates, tracking inbound funds) for another system to solve. Having effective, streamlined policies, processes, and practices for when and how to use your system is more important than the system itself or the bells and whistles it comes with. Focusing on your priorities for the system will help ensure it accomplishes those well.
2. Think about what is manageable for your team over time.
If your organization is at a crossroads with your GMS, there can be a lot of energy and excitement around pursuing a new system (whether “new” means entirely new or just a new process). This may mean that more resources are dedicated to a system search or build-out than what will be available on an ongoing basis to manage the system. Be wary that many systems require ongoing maintenance that can be quite labor intensive, sometimes even requiring a dedicated system administrator to manage software updates, process changes, or pull reports. It is important to choose systems that are fit for the purpose of your organizational processes but also match your team’s capacity and resources to manage system updates and corresponding system documentation. (Lack of documentation for systems and processes can be a bellwether for system and data troubles ahead). The newest, flashiest systems might not be manageable for your organization over time, and that is okay! The priority is to find a system that meets current and anticipated needs well and is one your team can manage well.
3. You cannot overprepare for change management.
Whether you are updating one process or launching an entirely new system, change management is critical. When it comes to change, people will not believe it until they see it. Prepare for change by
listening to and documenting the baseline pain points and ideas for the current process or system, and let people know that their opinion is important (Because it is! They are the experts on the way things are.). As you are developing your new system, keep managing for change by being hyper-transparent about the development, including the ways you are implementing or respectfully shelving ideas. As people have questions or concerns, be kind, patient, and calm—new systems can be intimidating for people who are used to being the expert in the way things are done. Finally, when your new system is up and running, it is essential to support people and their learning of the system through training and documentation so that they know how to use it and are empowered to do so. Learning a new system takes time. Adjusting to change takes time. Any investment in preparing for and enabling these is a worthy one.
4. Evaluate your official processes and the ways people work with them.
Map out the full lifecycle of your grants, being sure to capture the correct stages, statuses, and data points. This map serves as a guide as you set up your system to support the backbone infrastructure of your grantmaking. To make your system more successful, create efficiencies in the system that make the process easier for users. To do this, seek answers to questions like: Are people pulling the same report and doing the same data manipulation every month? What kinds of information doesn’t get logged in the system most often? What is being tracked offline that should be in the system? Understanding how people want to interact with processes and systems will help inform a set up that people want to use. Having a system that people want to use translates to happier system users, more complete and timely data inputs, and higher quality data.
5. Even if you love your system, regularly evaluate it.
Having regular (quarterly or semi-annual) system reviews is a valuable opportunity to analyze how things are going and to identify updates that can keep your system relevant, effective, and an enjoyable space for people to work. For example, if your grants management system processes grantee applications, regular reviews can provide dedicated time to consider things like: How many questions are you asking grantees? Do application questions get answered in ways other than intended? Do these questions need to be rewritten, or removed? Does the data you collect inform the story your organization wants to tell? Reviewing your system regularly can foster intentionality around the data you collect, can provide an opportunity to train staff (both new staff or in the spirit of change management), and help ensure alignment with organizational goals and industry trends.
A successful grants management system—no matter how many grants it manages or what exact form it takes—is one that is user-friendly and tracks data points that are useful and meaningful for both your organization and grantees. With these key elements, it is inevitable that people will depend on your grants management system and will feed more data into it, creating a snowball effect of capturing valid, reliable data to power your organization and its decision-making.