Grants managers play a variety of roles within foundations—administrators, auditors, financial wizards, and knowledge preservers—that require tech-savvy skills. As a result, technology has shaped the field of grants management, helping it evolve into the profession we know today.
Grants management systems (GMS) are among the essential tools our industry relies on to administer grants and do social good. These programs grew alongside the professionalization of our field and took decades of collaboration among PEAK members, consultants, partners, and vendors to create.
The journey to the cloud-based systems we know today began as a solution to a clear problem: thousands of grants managers drowning in paperwork.
A Transformative Tool for Grants Managers
In the early 1990s, PEAK founding member Ursula Stewart was working for the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust when a digital grants management solution became available for the first time to the broader network of grants managers. The arrival of the new system drastically changed her work life by introducing a computer into a traditionally analog process. “[When] that first grants management solution arrived at my desk, it was just this box that arrived. And it’s like, ‘What is this?’ … It’s some strange computer,” Ursula said. Like thousands of others in her field, she faced the monumental task of establishing a new, digital workflow from her existing paper-based practice, all without a roadmap.
As the topic of these systems began to dominate the conversation at gatherings of Grants Managers Network (now PEAK), grants managers turned to GMN to see how others were making the change. The organization started its first user group that focused on technology and discussed popular platforms such as GIFTS by MicroEdge, a go-to GMS for many GMN members at the time. Members learned from their peers in the field—what they struggled with and what solutions worked well. One observation was that members still spent a lot of time manually entering and searching for information about the grantees at the heart of their work.
Verifying Grantees Online
In 1996, the GuideStar organization (now GuideStar by Candid) took advantage of the newly introduced World Wide Web and began publishing online financial information about nonprofits. Again, this drastically changed how grants managers verified information about grantees. Before GuideStar’s online profiles, grants managers hunted through directories and reports to verify information on their grantees’ applications. GuideStar knew that foundations needed help with this due diligence and thought an automated system with a search function could offer a digital solution to the piles of paperwork accumulating on grants managers’ desks.
Fun fact: Today, the GuideStar database is the largest, most accurate source of information on 1.6 million nonprofits with more than 140,000 active organization profiles in its system.
But GMS solutions and the GuideStar database didn’t eliminate paperwork overnight. Grants managers still had to work with paper, including piles of printed reports requested by fellow foundations staff. If someone on the foundations team wanted to put into action the data housed in the online system, they needed to ask a grants manager to run a report, print it, and deliver it to their desk. Grants managers frequently ran multiple reports, because staff didn’t understand the breadth of data in the system. Someone from the program staff, for example, might inadvertently request a report that generated irrelevant information, because there was no way to see the big picture. The sector needed to figure out how to access the full array of data, while also being able to drill down into specific areas of information.
Fun fact: In 2001, Lucy Bernholz published a report called “Spending Smarter: Knowledge as a Philanthropic Resource.” The report sparked the creation of new roles for staff as knowledge managers who were able to see trends among the data. Among them, Roberto Cremonini, who became the Barr Foundation’s first chief knowledge and learning officer.
Taking Grantmaking to the Cloud
In an effort to find a solution that would streamline the process for both grantmakers and grantees, former Barr Foundation Chief Knowledge and Learning Officer Roberto Cremonini began working on an idea for a new kind of application. It could sit above a GMS, offering web-based dashboards that would allow staff to better navigate the wealth of grants data at their fingertips.
Following a successful GMN 2010 conference presentation with GivingData’s Alf Gracombe about the potential of the dashboard approach, Roberto left his role at the Barr Foundation to join the new start-up. A few years later, Roberto and the team at GivingData reached a pivotal moment and, in partnership with a handful of forward-thinking foundations, they took their dashboard from an overlay business intelligence product to a full-featured grants management solution. “There are options here. We’re not just stuck in this place of 10-year-old technology, and there is a vision for moving the sector forward,” Roberto said. GivingData’s work showcased how the field could work together to innovate and solve for gaps in existing systems.
Cloud-based technology increased the coordination and collaboration among foundation teams and gave grants managers the time and space to build deeper relationships with grantees while continuing to improve upon the processes in place at foundations. This became essential more than 10 years after the advent of the cloud-based system. During the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic, grants managers not only were able to access information in a remote work environment, but also could quickly administer funds to nonprofits and communities in need.
Today, grants managers are still working with vendors to relieve the tension between due diligence and streamlining processes to get grantees the funds they need faster. As Ursula reminded us, “Grantmaking is more than just about technology.” Grants managers can continue to play a pivotal role by collaborating with technology partners and funders to create more equitable grantmaking practices. Together with data and technology, grants managers can take the sector from efficient to effective to equitable.