Grantmaking programs are complicated to manage. Even the relatively small programs can involve tracking dozens of applications, reviewers, requirements, and payments. But grants management software applications can help by saving grantmakers time, making their processes more effective and transparent, and even transforming the way they do business.

Grantmakers’ choices are growing each year. The systems available to them range in complexity and price—small packages can support straightforward online application, review, and progress-reporting processes for $2,400 a year, while a specialty solution for a very large grantmaking organization can cost upward of $200,000. So how can foundations choose the right grants management system from this growing selection?

The right system is the one that best supports your organization’s particular needs, not necessarily the one with the most features. At its simplest, a grants management system only needs to do two things: store basic information about grant projects so you can easily retrieve it (for example, name, sponsor, and contact), and track the project’s status as it moves through your organization’s process.

But what if you need to let applicants upload additional documents as part of their submission? If you have multiple grant programs, do you need to be able to categorize a group of applicants—for example, by date of submission, geographic location, or population served? It’s also useful to think about how the system can accommodate your applicants. For example, online forms can “time out” unexpectedly and lead to the loss of significant time and data entry. Can applicants save their applications as drafts and come back to them later to submit? And can the system automatically send an email to confirm that their applications have been received?

Before looking into specific tools, take the time to brainstorm what your foundation actually needs in a system. Identify what features are must-haves, and what would just be nice to have. What features do you know you don’t need? Consider carefully what’s really a “must have”—that means you’d disqualify a system that’s perfect for you in every other way just because it doesn’t have that feature.

With that list of important features in mind, contact the vendors and ask for demos. Ask them to show you exactly the features you consider important. Consider giving them a script which walks through the tasks that you’d like to see demoed—for example, “I check the grantees that have progress reports due, and create a letter to mail to each of them.” This can be very useful to help compare different systems to each other.

Use these demos to narrow down your choices to only a couple of systems, and then ask those vendors for pricing information. For some systems, pricing is straightforward. For others, it’s quite complicated, and may take some time for the vendor to estimate. Make sure you know what is included in the price. Will the vendor move any existing data into the system? Set up the system for you? Do more complex customizations?

There are other factors to consider other than the system itself. Is support or training available? Can your staff members get the help they need when they need it, or does the vendor only offer a limited window for support requests per day? How stable of a company is the vendor? Are they likely to go out of business in only a few years? Do they have enough clients to cover their own expenses? Choosing a grants management software package and moving your data into it is a considerable effort. You don’t want to be forced to repeat this work in a year because a vendor has gone out of business.

Remember that you’re not alone when evaluating software. Do you know any other foundations that use the system? What sort of experience have they had when dealing with the vendor? Are there user groups or forums of other foundations using the system that can help answer your questions?

A grants management system is only useful if it fits your organization’s needs. It should make the jobs your already busy staff does each day easier and more efficient, allowing you to focus on your foundation’s mission. There’s much to consider when choosing such a system. Each of the available options has its own strengths and feature-mixes, and cost isn’t a guarantee of anything—especially since every grantmaker’s needs differ. But if you do your homework and compare what’s available with an honest evaluation of what you need, you’ll find a system that will help you manage your processes more efficiently and communicate better with grantees.

Need more help choosing a grants management system…?

The Private Foundation’s Grants Management Toolkit

Idealware’s Private Foundation’s Grants Management Toolkit can expedite the core elements of the system selection process to a few short weeks. In this brand new online training series, our grants management software experts will walk you through live one-hour demos of nine systems to explore the available options for accepting and reviewing applications and tracking grants throughout their life cycles. During two 90-minute live webinars, we’ll also take a look at what the grants management systems do and compare the strengths and weaknesses of the packages available for United States-based foundations. Then we’ll recommend packages that might work for your foundation based on our highly regarded research. NCFP Friends of the Family will receive a 20% discount.

Learn more or register for the course with the special discount here.