One of the best parts of my job is having fabulous and knowledgeable colleagues at other foundations who make themselves available for peer support, learning, and sharing. In a recent casual chat with a small group of these colleagues, the conversation turned to some of the different operating structures being used by various grants management teams across the sector. We discussed the pros and cons of—and the differences between—“centralized” and “decentralized” grants management models, and the “hybrid” models that fall in-between the two. While it’s useful to know that the 2013 GMN Job and Salary Survey found that 80% of grants management departments are centralized, with the remaining 20% evenly split between decentralized and hybrid structures—it quickly emerged that each of us defined those terms differently. Some of us assumed these terms were about reporting relationships, others thought they referred to process design or the allocation of roles and responsibilities. We also realized that, no matter what definition we use, there are nuances and variations that are not captured within any of these.
As the conversation continued, however, we were able to clarify those points where we did agree. We all believe that organizational design, process design, and role definition deserve thoughtful attention. This is true at all levels of an organization, but particularly so for grants management because of the unique role we play in foundations, and because our field is rapidly changing. As technology has advanced and the sector has become more operationally sophisticated, the role of grants managers has become more integral than ever. Grants managers sit at a strategic intersection in our foundations, where many of the core functions come together, and thus play an essential role ensuring that foundations achieve impact. Gone are the days when grants managers could be considered “back office,” or somehow separate from the programmatic work of philanthropy.
Regardless of how organizational structures are defined, effective relationships between grants managers and program staff are essential for us to achieve real impact together. Further, roles we have previously segmented into either “program” or “administration” are blurring together as this field continues to evolve. Modern philanthropy now includes the sophisticated use and application of data, systems, technology, and intellectual property—both internally and in our grantmaking strategies. It makes sense, then, that the grant-giving work of program staff and the functions previously viewed as purely operational are more interdependent. Working together, program staff and grants managers have begun to create and nourish a culture of innovation, thinking, and learning within foundations. In this fertile ground, grants managers can have tremendous opportunity to play a significant and needed role in our organizations.
Depending on how you define the terms, the structure of the grants management team at the Hewlett Foundation could be described as either centralized or hybrid. The team all report to me, which fits with the concept of a “centralized” department, but because each manager is also integrated into program teams, some might consider this a “hybrid” model. Regardless of label, the role we are playing is a true embodiment of this evolution in action. Each program area at Hewlett works with a grants officer—who works out of Grants Management in partnership with their program officers and program associates. The grants officer is part of the program team; attending meetings, conferences, and retreats, and engaging in the team’s goals, work, and learning in an ongoing way. Grants officers work with their program colleagues to execute and manage all active grants, including compliance management, data capture and ongoing monitoring. This relationship allows the operational side of grantmaking to be in constant dialogue with, and to inform, the work of our programmatic colleagues. It also allows members of the Grants Management team to develop expertise and depth of experience about the content of our work.
In addition to their participation on the program side, all grants officers are also members of the Grants Management department, where together we consolidate and centralize expertise and knowledge while holding a broad view of the organization. Together, we observe patterns, learn and share best practices, aggregate information, analyze and improve digital data, and design systems. We train all new program staff on grant practice, workflows, requirements and technology. We track and synthesize the overall risk profile of all our grant activities, and work closely with the legal department to manage risk. And as a grants management team, we are able to observe and share best practices from each program across the foundation and to further cross-pollinate within other programs. Because we do sit at these intersections, we add value to the foundation as a whole, making connections that contribute to how the entire organization works together.
My team will never have the content-expertise of our program colleagues (not even close) but we do develop sufficient knowledge to ensure that the systems used to execute and manage grants are in full support of, and in alignment with, what our programs need to do their work and to do it well. The grants officers bring their own expertise in systems, process, data, project management and grant requirements to the program teams. In this way, there is a dynamic and constantly evolving interdependence between the program goals of the foundation and the operational side of grantmaking.
It’s an exciting time to be working at the intersection of philanthropic programs and operations, primarily because the blurring of lines makes every day ripe with opportunity. It creates fertile new ground for grants managers to be at the center of philanthropic activity, decision-making, and learning. It creates fodder for thoughtful discussion with my colleagues and throughout the field. As our work changes and evolves, I know there will be more engaging—and challenging—conversations ahead!