When I started in the grants management profession 25 years ago, learning about the work was on the job training because it wasn’t recognized as needing specialized knowledge or expertise. My title was so generic I could have been doing anything from cleaning cages at the zoo to ensuring that millions of dollars in grants actually got out the door each year. Little did I know that a group of grantmakers were coming together in New York to define a new profession.
They first identified themselves as “a meeting of grants administrators” in 1992 and were 11 strong. They evolved into the Grants Administration Group, providing “…a forum to exchange information and discuss issues pertinent to the field.” While the words of that original mission have been since refined (and the organization name changed several times to reflect the evolving profession), the core focus—learning from each other and engaging together to resolve issues critical to philanthropy—remains just as vibrant as ever.
What has changed dramatically is the scope of the work we do and the people who are responsible for it. The rapid pace of change can make this feel much more like a revolution than an evolution to those of us in the midst of it.
When we first organized as a profession, the focus of our conversations and need to learn centered on process and administration—applications, compliance, decision making, monitoring, reporting, and filing. Now, technology has automated many of those administrative and process components. This has had the added benefit of breaking down silos between grants management, other operations roles, program staff, and even executives so that more people within an organization understand their role and contribution to how a grant gets made. The rising interest in drawing on collecting and using data to improve decisions and understanding of impact is a more recent influence on our expanding role.
This has led to a working definition of this profession recognizing that it is a multi-disciplinary profession including:
- Strategy and Policy — High level decisions that affect implementation. For example, the division of responsibility between board and staff, what types of grants and other support the funder is authorized to use, and policy decisions about organizational eligibility, focus, geographic range, etc.
- Approach & Structure — This category pertains to how grants are structured to achieve outcomes. It includes decisions about size of grants, type, and length of grant, and relationship between request and what you actually give. This category also includes decisions about funding partnerships and relationships with other funders and with nonprofits.
- Requirements, Process & Workflow — This includes everything from application and reporting requirements, retention practices, due-diligence, award letter and reporting specifics. In addition, this category includes workflow—who touches what and when and the systems in place.
- Communication and Relationships — How the organization communicates about its work – alignment of requirements, transparency, feedback loops, and the relationship with grantees. How you build relationships with grantees through practices such as customer service-related practices, site visits or telephone availability, standards around response time and follow up.
- Knowledge/Information Management — What do you do with all of the data and info you have? What outside sources are there to supplement/complement what you know?
Current GMN members only spend about 43 percent of their time on the Requirements, Process, and Workflow components. The remaining time is spent on work which falls under this broader definition of grantmaking practice, including almost 10% of time on information and knowledge management, and on other operations and program work in their organizations.
And we see much more of a spread in those engaged in practice discussions than ever before as more executives engage in practice conversations that ever before.
So what has always brought us together—a passion for improving how grants get made—continues to bring us together, we just have more to come together around.
What hasn’t evolved as quickly is how grants management and the practice of grantmaking is perceived across the field of philanthropy.
To measure the current attitudes and perceptions towards grants management, GMN launched a research project in 2015.
What we learned was:
- The field’s perceptions towards “grants management” is outdated. While there are indicators that it is evolving, “grants manager” and “grants management” remains primarily associated with administration, compliance, and process.
- Staff and leaders say that they understand and value the connection between practices and results. This positive assessment is shared by Grants Managers, who agree that their colleagues “get it.”
- Many funders report that they are paying attention to practice as part of organization-wide conversation and strategy formation such as including practice-related goals in strategic or annual plans and evaluating their practices, but there remains room for growth.
- Some executives are acting in ways that demonstrate that practices are valued like ensuring grants management is represented at the leadership table, but there remains room for growth in this area as well.
Look for upcoming blogs as we report what we’ve heard and share how GMN plans to act to represent and elevate the profession to the larger field, ensuring that grantmaking practices, and the people who manage them, are recognized for what and who they are—integral components of and contributor to a grantmaker’s success.