Get on the Map: The Critical Role of the Grants Manager in a New Era of Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing

Grants managers: Your time has come. Already indispensable, you are fast becoming strategic linchpins of your organizations.

Signs pointing to the importance of your role in your foundation’s success are everywhere. The quest to measure impact, the increasing emphasis on data-driven decision making, the open data movement, and the emerging ethos of knowledge sharing and collaboration among foundations all herald significant changes in the role of grants manager.

One of the key takeaways from the recent economic downturn is that there is no room for gratuitous seat-of-the-pants grantmaking anymore. The field now realizes just how precious and limited its resources are. We have to be intentional about the impact we are trying to achieve.

To understand if we are making an impact, we need to know where things stand at this moment with respect to the issues and populations we care about, and we need to know if things have changed after we’ve made interventions. And to measure change, we need data and smart metrics that can tell us just how things have changed.

Meanwhile, people are watching us and telling stories about your work—often cobbling together conclusions from bits and pieces of information they are able to glean through IRS tax forms. What story does that tell about your foundation? Is it an accurate reflection of its work?

Take a moment to look at the grant descriptions listed on your foundation’s tax form. Is there enough information there to answer the kinds of questions that watchdogs and other interest groups will be asking once they have open access to machine-readable copies of the tax returns of all U.S. foundations? While the IRS is the official watchdog of the nonprofit sector, soon it will no longer have a monopoly on publicly-available information about the work of foundations. The reason – open data.

All foundations larger than a flyspeck must file Forms 990 or 990-PF annually, listing the grants that they awarded during the previous year. All fine and good. Up to now, foundations didn’t have to pay much attention to how accurately or completely they described their grantmaking to the IRS. But open data is going to change all that. Do your grant descriptions answer the question, “What population group(s) are the intended beneficiaries of these grants?” Or, “What geographic area is being served?” Or, “What type of support is being provided?” Or even, “What is the subject matter of this grant?”

There is time to get ahead of the open data curve. But to do it, we have to wake up to the fact that IRS tax forms are wholly inadequate to serve as the public’s primary source of information about U.S. foundations. Let’s not mince words; Form 990 is terrible data collection tool for documenting the work of foundations and telling their stories to the world. It wasn’t designed for that purpose. It was, is, and will remain a tool for the government to determine whether foundations are in compliance with the law. Far better for the field to take matters into its own hands and build a data collection system that gives us what we need in order to do our work effectively and tell our stories accurately.

Recognizing this need more than a decade ago, Foundation Center launched the Electronic Reporting Program, which now collects detailed grantmaking data from nearly 1,000 funders, representing more than a quarter of the field’s total giving. And now, thanks to the power of partnership, this field-driven data collection system is poised to make open IRS data about foundation grantmaking largely irrelevant.

Late last year, the Forum of Regional Associations and Foundation Center entered into a strategic alliance to dramatically expand foundation and regional association access to philanthropic data, research, and visualization tools. The partnership kicked off in February with the launch of “Get on the Map,” a region-by-region campaign to recruit foundations to share their grants data with each other in a standard format, so that the collective work of regional association members can be accessed, aggregated, and displayed on a state-of-the-art interactive mapping platform called Foundation Maps.

The alliance is off to a rousing start, as attested to by Maggie Osborn, president of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy in a recent blog post on the website of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers: “Twenty regional associations representing over 2,700 organizations and more than $38 billion in grantmaking [have signed up to] work with funders across the country to harness the data that supports our individual and collective work and enables all of us to tell a more accurate version of the story of philanthropy.”

In other words, institutional philanthropy has begun to tip decidedly into a new era of collaboration and knowledge sharing. It is not beyond imagining that up-to-date, easy-to-access information on the work of more than 3,000 foundations could be available to all members of participating regional associations within the next couple of years. That’s big.

And look who’s sitting at the epicenter of this transformative moment – you, the grants manager! As this field-wide transformation takes place, your role will become even more critical to the success of your organization. Here are some likely implications for your work, as philanthropy becomes more data-driven:

  1. Level of detail: Anticipating the advent of open 990 data, is your foundation documenting its grantmaking at a level of detail sufficient to answer the kinds of questions external audiences will be asking?
  2. Point person: As the Get on the Map campaign unfolds, you are the essential point of connection between your foundation and the Forum/Foundation Center data partnership.
  3. Intelligence gathering: Once your foundation is participating in Get on the Map, you will suddenly have access to a wealth of detailed information about the grantmaking of your peers. How will you harness that information so that it can serve as “intelligence” that can inform the work of your foundation?
  4. Professional meetings: When the next Grants Managers Network meeting takes place, you and your peers will come together armed with current, accurate data on the collective grantmaking of the field. How might this change the nature of the conversations that take place at professional conferences and meetings?
  5. Internal data maven: With access to external intelligence about the work of peer organizations, you will inevitably become the “go-to” person for the answers to such questions as: Who else is funding a particular issue in our region? Where are the funding gaps? Who may be natural collaborators? How might this change the way you work with internal colleagues, such as program officers, evaluation officers, and executives?

The bottom line is this: timely, accurate data is within our reach, and with it, the potential for deepening our impact. Grants managers, seize the moment!

Larry McGill

Larry McGill, Ph.D., is the Foundation Center’s vice president for research.

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