Five Ways Grants Managers Can Dig into Data to Make a Difference—A GMN2016 Session Recap

In March 2016, we gathered at the Grants Managers Network conference in New Orleans.  The resounding theme that echoed throughout the sessions was how the field of grants management is evolving and how we as grants managers are increasingly playing vital roles in guiding the work of our organizations through the information we gather, structure, and analyze and the knowledge we share with our peers and the field. In keeping with that theme, we organized a lively panel discussion to help surface practical tips among our peers to help grants managers take steps today to dig into their own data and make a difference. Our panelists represented a range of foundations, and all came with their own stories about how they had proactively taken steps to dig into their own data and played a leadership role in championing improvements in their own institutions.  But a good session would not be complete without crowdsourcing from the audience’s experiences as well.  Such good ideas came out of the session that we just had to write a blog! The Session highlighted five tips:

  1. Promote the shift- from ‘do this’ to ‘what do you think about this?’
  2. Be the internal data networker & information broker
  3. Know your Foundation Center and Regional Association of Grantmakers
  4. Coding is iterative and needs to be understood by everyone in the organization
  5. Build your skills

The Audience

To put it in perspective, there were more than 180 organizations in the room, and we compiled collective giving and assets figures for the 117 organizations whose data was available to Foundation Center.  Using the latest figures available, we determined those 117 organizations represented more than $100 billion in assets and nearly $9 billion in giving.  That is a lot of money, a lot of data and a lot of experience!   The Highlights Here are some highlights from both the panelists and the audience!

Promote the shift – from ‘do this’ to ‘what do you think about this?’

At the core of our talk was a call to action… “Be proactive: get a seat at the table, participate in conversations, ask questions and make suggestions, offer to help.” To promote this shift in their own organizations, Jessica Hickok from The James Irvine Foundation, and Jennifer Pedroni from HealthSpark Foundation, shared some of their own journeys… Jessica shared a story about how she jumped at the opportunity to fill in a gap when the personnel normally responsible for the annual report suddenly left.  Given that she already played the role of “data keeper,” she simply offered to analyze her data set in time for the report.  The following year that section of the annual report became hers–she led the charge, made suggestions for new and different data to present and ferreted out outlier data to improve the report. Simply by stepping up, she was able to take on a new and interesting body of work. In Jennifer’s case, when the organization moved to a new grants management system, she seized the opportunity to take on the role of “questioner” to better understand program staff and the foundation’s data needs and incorporate that information into the system redesign.  She also made a couple of suggestions about how to be proactive:

  • Monitor staff calendars to see what meetings are on tap and offer to join conversations upstream.
  • Volunteer what data should be collected up front rather than after the fact.

This resonated with participants who also shared their activities to promote the shift:  

  • Attend workgroups asking program teams about data they need. Identify and document gaps
  • Go out of your way to talk and cultivate relationships in different departments; Model information sharing
  • Let people know how you can contribute
  • A compelling example from an audience member who took the opportunity to design new visual snapshots of data for board book and this led to a new role in the organization

Be the internal data networker & information broker

Anytime you are interacting with data… Hannah Kahn from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, suggests asking three questions:

  • Is it worth sharing?
  • Can you repurpose it?
  • Who is another natural audience for this information?  

She told a story about how she was asked to analyze a specific portfolio for an outgoing staff member that proved so valuable that she offered to use it to create a training packet for new staff to introduce them to that specific grantmaking portfolio. Participants shared examples of how they acted as a data broker including:

  • Preparing a report that detailed the length of time it took from a completed application to a paid grant analyzing the pain points along the way
  • Pulling large external datasets to summarize landscape trends by learning how to use pivot tables and pivot charts to do better analysis
  • Pulling data by geographic area and building a custom CEO dashboard (GIFTS online) for tracking activity
  • Showing multi-year grants data and graphs to display trends to incoming staff
  • Tip: Save your report parameters so you can re-run it at necessary intervals

Know your Foundation Center and Regional Association of Grantmakers

Through the power of networks and partnerships, Jen Bokoff of Foundation Center highlighted how grants managers could easily and freely access vital regional grants data to inform internal conversations. She showcased a partnership between Foundation Center and the Forum for Regional Association of Grantmakers called the Get on the Map campaign which makes available funder- contributed regional giving data to members of participating associations on Foundation Center’s new Foundation Map platform—a flagship tool for data visualization. Of course… the map becomes more powerful as more funders participate! Recommendations included:

  • See if your regional association is participating
  • If so, learn how to use the map to answer questions like: Who else is funding/working on specific issues or with specific populations in your area of interest?
  • Become a proactive data networker with this data and use it to inform internal conversations
  • Improve the data on which your region relies by e-reporting your grants data to Foundation Center. It’s simple!
  • For questions… email

Coding is iterative and needs to be understood by everyone in the organization

Both Jessica and Jennifer underscored an important point:  If there is one area that grant managers can control in their organization, it’s the data filing system.  However… convincing everyone to use it correctly and making sure it’s relevant to the needs of the organization often proves a little more difficult. Jennifer recounted a collaborative project with 19 other funders in the Philadelphia region that highlighted the challenge of using aggregated data in a meaningful way.  Although the funders had commonality in the categories they collected, their definitions were radically different.  For example, they found they were coding geographic data in 200 different ways – all in one very small region!  This exercise shed light on how each organization’s unique needs were at odds with developing a collective understanding of their funding overlap.  Each funder in that group is now considering how to better align its coding system using Foundation Center’s Philanthropy Classification System which would provide a common standard across these organizations. From an internal perspective, Jessica talked about several strategies she has used to rally peer support and create consistent and relevant coding for the organization:

  • Use the “what’s in it for me?” approach with colleagues by referencing board presentations and annual reports
  • Find other data champions in the organization – don’t go it alone!
  • Make a list of questions you can’t answer and figure out what data is needed
  • Conversely, if you are aren’t reporting on it–get rid of it
  • Use pivotal moments to reevaluate coding such as a change in strategic focus, bringing on a new evaluator or a new grants management system
  • Meet with program directors annually to evaluate what’s working and what more is needed

Participants shared some additional great examples of how they ensure that the coding is working for everyone:

  • When there is leadership or staff transitions – this can provide “fresh eyes” and a lens on questions you can’t answer
  • Asking people to define existing codes instead of assuming they share the same definitions
  • Developing tools for the staff such as a definitions document for coding and training opportunities

Build your skills

The evolution of the grants management field requires that we also increase our own professional capacity in analyzing and communicating about the data we keep.  Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available since the demand for graphic approaches to storytelling are so great.. The Resources The panel shared their favorites resources, including the following:

Attendees also took time during the session to list the resources they use to help them with data analysis and visualization.  We have collated the full list of responses where you can also add your thoughts to the list at They listed a couple of key resources such as Cole Nussbaumer’s blog, Edward Tufte’s course, and Alberto Cairo’s MOOC course. People had also attended conferences that they found useful, including Do Good Data.  We were also really happy to see how many of you referenced your own peer network as a source of your learning, including GMN. Many grants managers are already taking these steps and are finding value in digging into their foundation’s data.  Other grants managers are just starting, and we hope this list of ideas and resources will help you along the way.  The key is to be proactive.  Ours is a unique time and space to really make a difference!



Hannah Kahn

Hannah Kahn serves as a grants officer in the Hewlett Foundation's Grants Management Department. She works directly with the Foundation's Philanthropy and Performing Arts programs to facilitate their grantmaking. Follow her on Twitter @hannahkahn2.

Rebecca Van Sickle

Rebecca Van Sickle is the Managing Partner at 1892 consulting and can be found on Twitter at @rvans and @1892consult.

Jen Bokoff

Jen Bokoff is the director of stakeholder engagement at Foundation Center. She develops partnerships and projects that build knowledge and strategy in the social sector, with an eye specifically on grantmakers. In other words, she goes to sleep thinking about how brilliant curation of qualitative and quantitative data can drive smarter decisions in philanthropy. She also runs GrantCraft, a free service that taps the practical wisdom of funders to improve the collective knowledge of the philanthropy field. In her role, Jen regularly speaks at conferences and facilitates workshops with funders, and connects people to resources, ideas, and one another. Connect with Jen on Twitter: @jenbo1

Jennifer Pedroni

Jennifer Pedroni is VP of Administration at HealthSpark Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferpedroni.

C. Davis Parchment

C. Davis Parchment manages the eReporting Program and the Get on the Map Campaign for Foundation Center. Follow her on Twitter @CDavisParchment.

Jessica Hickok

Jessica Hickok is the Grants Manager at The James Irvine Foundation, whose mission is to expand opportunity for the people of California. Follow her on Twitter @Jess4Irvine.

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