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PEAK Grantmaking

From Procedural to Principled: A Short Recent History of Grants Management

By Adam Liebling

Happy New Year! 2019 is a special year for me. It is the 20th anniversary of when I began in philanthropy. Over the course of my career—beginning as a scrappy, bright-eyed temp learning the ropes of accounts payable and today as a spiffy associate director at an international human rights nonprofit—I have witnessed seismic and incremental changes in how this field operates and what it can achieve. I have identified five major shifts over the past two decades around administrative functions, compliance, transparency, impact measurement, and technology.

1. Rinse, Repeat.
Interestingly, when I moved (or fell) into grants management in 2000, I found it wasn’t very different from accounts payable. Enter information into the system. Get the documents signed. Cut the checks. Rinse, repeat. Grants management was transactional.

2. Compliance is King
Then came the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing PATRIOT Act and related executive orders. Sarbanes-Oxley soon followed in 2002. The Pension Protection Act dropped in 2006. The aughts saw grants managers stepping up to the challenges of a new regulatory landscape and the age of grant compliance began. Policies abounded.

Compliance helped elevate the grants management role, but perhaps not in the most flattering light; we were essentially inescapable, in-house auditors. I remember around this time, people coming into my office the way they likely approached their dentist. No offense to the dental profession!

3. Spotlight on Transparency
Around 2005, for a variety of reasons both technological and practical (e.g., the rise of charity review sites, increased governmental and media scrutiny resulting from university/church/other nonprofit scandals), grantmakers became more interested in telling their story. Grants managers were tasked with preparing and providing that information. The Form 990 was also revised in 2007 in response to an increased demand for nonprofit transparency; congruously, private foundations began shining a brighter light on their work. (The Foundation Center launched the excellent GlassPockets.org in 2010, at the height of this trend toward transparency and accountability.) Grants managers became the liaisons between the data and the story.

4. Metrics Make the Message
To communicate out how their grantmaking has furthered the public good, grantmakers needed to evaluate their work and the work of their grantees. Impact measurement became necessary, and the quest was on to identify outcomes, develop indicators, and design metrics, as well as define what all this actually meant. Grants managers became instrumental not only in setting up the systems to collect and analyze this information, but in helping grantmakers think strategically and responsibly about these complicated and, frankly, existential issues.

5. New Technology Leads the Way
Technology not only changed and introduced new systems, but it also pushed foundations to question their processes and policies entirely. This era is best represented by the game-changing Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose report, published in 2008, which made rethinking and streamlining practices a moral imperative and grants management’s guiding principle. Excessive and redundant compliance measures, once built up to validate a grants manager’s raison d’être, took a back seat to thoughtful, pragmatic, mission-driven practices that put the grantee experience in the middle of the decision.

But let’s not downplay the introduction of new systems. We used to only have two or three grants systems, and by golly, we had no choice but to like them. Then, alternative options exploded, and grants management morphed into project management, system administration, and other IT-adjacent roles. It is rare to see today a Grants Manager job description requirement that doesn’t include experience in implementing a new system.

PEAK Lifts Us to New Heights
Not so much an external factor as a response to them is PEAK Grantmaking itself. PEAK Grantmaking helped our field navigate the shifts noted above, by educating and professionalizing grants management to not only address new demands on our field, but also to empower us to lead our organizations through principled example. Love ya, PEAK!

The Grants Manager of Today
Prior to 2001, grants management was clerical – compile the board book, send the grant agreements and turndown letters, make the doughnuts. In the aughts, grants management was about telling others what they can and can’t do – jump over this hurdle, get around this obstacle. And since then, we’ve become auditor-storyteller-data maven-IT guru dentists. Or more succinctly, we evolved from administrative managers of grants to managers of complex systems to organize and make meaning out of data.

But what about right now? Here is where I see us in 2019:

  • Today’s grants manager is a strategic thought partner across the organization, at all levels, to operationalize the organization’s philanthropic mission and align its grantmaking practices with its values.
  • Today’s grants manager structures policies and processes to not only streamline, but also to support grantees, to help ensure their success, and to learn from one another.
  • Today’s grants manager drives equity, identifying and avoiding bias and providing opportunities to the historically marginalized.
  • Today’s grants manager builds trust-based relationships with grantseekers and grantees, identifying power and privilege and how that impedes true partnerships.
  • Today’s grants manager embraces our contradictions and finds balance between compliance and creativity, risk avoidance and risk acceptance, big data collection and responsible data stewardship.
  • Today’s grants manager espouses principled grantmaking.

Tomorrow’s grants manager, hopefully, will travel back in time and explain blockchain to us.

Please share your thoughts below. Have you seen grants management take a different trajectory? I want to hear from you!

To learn more about the knowledge and competencies that today’s grants managers should be building, check out PEAK Grantmaking’s Grants Management Professional Competency Model.

Adam Liebling is a grants management professional with grantmaking experience in human rights and social justice, animal welfare, health/science research and policy, humanitarian and disaster response, and education. Adam currently serves as Associate Director of International Operations and Grants Management at American Jewish World Service, a progressive funder of global grassroots activism toward sexual health and rights, LGBTQI rights, civil and political rights, land and water rights, and climate justice. In his spare time, Adam enjoys traveling with his partner and playing with their cat, Theo-dorable Buttingtons. Follow Adam on LinkedIn.