Grants Management Software is a Dinosaur. Bring on the Jetpacks.

Most grant management software performs admirably.   The applications handle dozens of functions, are often customizable (for a cost), and generally meet the basic needs of users. Here’s the problem. ‘Admirable’ isn’t the adjective I want to use in relation to our technology. I want world-beater. And the key challenge is that no single system today does all things well. Many grant management platforms provide dozens of critical functions like workflow management, contract facilitation, reporting, document hosting, organization vetting, payment processing, employee giving and volunteerism, and more. And the unfortunate reality is that no single system will ever be best-in-class for each of these functions. One application will have a beautiful, modern interface but not the backend infrastructure to scale for large foundations. Another will provide terrific data visualization and reporting, but not offer employee giving capabilities. So we invariably end up picking those features that are most important to us, and settle for the rest.

But there’s hope.

The promise of service oriented architecture (SOA) has existed in one form or another for many years. The basic idea is that applications will consist of independent components each performing a specific function, joining together to form a complete software solution. Various applications and companies have had some limited success employing this architecture, but it looks like there’s finally reason to cheer, in the form of MASA (Mesh Application and Service Architecture) and Micro Services. Without getting too wonky, these modern architectures will finally make it easier to build software applications by combining independent services deployed in the Cloud. And this combination of services that do one thing extremely well is the key to unlocking massive value, innovation, and transforming the sleepy world of foundation technology.

Envision this. Rather than a large, monolithic system attempting to be all things to all foundations, companies will instead focus on doing one or two things exceptionally well (their ‘core competency’ to use old-timey parlance), and provide their wares as Services that will be linked into a connected platform, infinitely customizable to the needs of each foundation.

Just for fun, here’s how it might work. CyberGrants or Fluxx or MicroEdge might become aggregators of these services, providing the linking architecture (MASA/micro services) along with a user interface and workflow engine. GuideStar could integrate as a service, providing consistent organization data and vetting. The Foundation Center would code each grant application with a consistent taxonomy (simultaneously adding valuable grants data back into its own repository, enabling nonprofits to improve their odds at finding the right funders). Benevity might plug-in and provide volunteerism services. YourCause could enable employee giving and matching grants. Blackbaud could fill the void of modern reporting and analytics capabilities, while someone else would step in to provide payment services. The key is that each of these organizations will provide a few services better than anyone else, and the services architecture will enable them to seamlessly integrate with a variety of platforms.And this is where the real innovation starts, because philanthropy tech could integrate non-philanthropy services, enabling new functionality that greatly expands the capability of our foundations. Docusign and Box and Webex could integrate to provide contract collaboration and digital signature services, improving speed and efficiency of administrative work. An army of cloud-based Bots could comb through our grants data, uncovering interesting insights and reporting. Social media apps will be integrated to tell the world about our latest grants or progress on a public commitment. Slack can integrate with workflow to enable everyone within the foundation to better communicate and collaborate on a large project. The possibilities are endless and stunning.

It’s a huge win for everyone. Revenues increase as natural selection reduces the number of organizations competing to provide the same services. Foundations can easily tailor their technology by picking best-in-class service providers that meet their specific needs. Grant managers and grant seekers each benefit as tools and interfaces become standardized and more powerful, increasing efficiency and simplicity (what grant seeker wouldn’t love to update their organizational data once and have it shared with multiple funders?).

Now the question is, who will dip their toe into this brave new architecture?

What do you think? Please add your comments, and please share.

Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan is the Director of Technology and Data for the Walmart Foundation. He leads a team responsible for the software, data, and other technologies used to manage the Walmart Foundation's global philanthropy, analytics, reporting, employee giving and volunteerism activities. Their systems process 200,000 grant applications annually, support giving at 4500 facilities in 10 countries, and are used by more than 1.5 million associates around the world.

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