Ask The Center: Grant Management Systems

Courtesy of Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

Despite the upheaval COVID-19 has caused, many foundations are finding time to revisit their strategies, systems, and tools. Several funders have reached out to NCFP in recent weeks looking for guidance on evaluating grants management systems.

We are not experts on all systems available, but NCFP staff members have used grants systems throughout our careers. We suggest reviewing some timely resources on the topic:

As you consider this decision, think carefully about the needs of your staff, foundation board, and grantees. At the end of this process, your goal is obviously to make everyone’s lives easier.

What should you consider when reviewing a new grants system?

Data Storage and System Updates

Review your old system. If your foundation was to be audited or have a grants inquiry, would you be able to access any documentation you needed like grant agreements or GuideStar Charity Check reports? If the decision is still a year or more off, should you start exploring exports or saving some records elsewhere?

Some systems store data very well, but don’t allow you to export the data. Look at this with three lenses:

  1. If you decide 5 years from now you hate the software, how hard is it to get data out?
  2. How easy is it for you to pull reports—both for your own job and for accounting purposes? Is the system compatible with your accounting software or platform?
  3. Some foundations highly value e-reporting, which discloses your grants in a public way quarterly to Candid (formerly known as the Foundation Center). If this is important to you, ask questions about it.

Investigate how the system updates and makes improvements. Some systems are constantly doing system-wide release updates, which may have release notes. Oftentimes, this means if someone else suggests a change, you can access that improvement as well. If you have a lot of custom needs, you’ll want a provider with experience in customizing their out-of-the-box product. Ask how changes are implemented, what is required on your end to implement those changes, and what costs are associated with releases, syncs, or system updates.

Ask each vendor for current clients as references. But, also do your homework. I asked clients who they spoke with or how they connect or learn.

Customer Service

For some of our Friends of the Family, a white glove service with a dedicated account representative is important. Find out both who oversees implementation and who you can call when you need help two days before a board meeting. I loved that my last grants management provider had a phone number I could call so I could get help that day (even if my contact was sick or traveling).

Payment

The payment structure can vary at different vendors, so be sure to ask about implementation costs, annual costs, any upgrades or updates your foundation might need, and importing legacy (existing) data. These costs can vary drastically, and in some cases, it might not be worth importing past grants data if you can access it another way.  Do also review contract terms and renewal for your current vendor (if applicable) and any future vendor.

End-users and Ease of Use

Consider your typical grant process and think about a few grantees and the impact on them. For example, some technologies can import different data, like GuideStar for Grant Applications, which is pre-filled data about nonprofits from their GuideStar profile or even their IRS 990. This can be helpful, but if you typically give to chapters of national nonprofits or maybe fiscally sponsored organizations this might not simplify the process for them.

If your board members will need to log into a system to review grants and other information, consider how that system can support your decision-making process. To advance your grantmaking decisions, some systems may allow you to generate a report of specific questions from a grant evaluation, making overall data analysis across grant evaluations easier. Talk to your board about the logistics of using the system. Supporting board members or committee members to log in can be different training than staff because they are volunteers on their own personal technology systems.

Conclusion

Good luck as you research! This is a big decision—whether you are bringing your grants system online or hoping to make everyone’s lives a bit easier. Again, for a complete list of available grants management systems, see Peak Grantmaking’s 2020 Consumers Guide to Grants Management Systems. Finally, remember that the best technology can work badly if it isn’t implemented well. So take the time needed to make this process work for everyone engaged.

Katie Scott is the program director at NCFP.


The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.