2015-09-30 next steps

Preparing for Next Steps

Grants Managers Network held the Perfect Pitch Contest to press grants management professionals to create elevator speeches and essentially get better at telling the story behind what it is they do and to define their contributions.  Grants Management Departments should be ready to deliver their elevator speech as philanthropy is beginning to shift in ways to amplify the role of grants manager.

If there is one thing on which all grants managers can agree, it’s that grant making organizations are like snowflakes, no two are the same.  The constellation of procedures implemented by funders makes a universal definition of the role of grants management difficult to explain.  While process improvement certainly remains a hallmark of grants management, there is so much outside of the standard grant process that makes grants management an incredible resource for foundation staff.  When I think about my role day to day, there are a couple areas where I see the role of the grants department becoming more and more critical that may not be so apparent to those outside of the field.  There are two trends in philanthropy that I see drawing the grants management department more into focus over the next few years: the shift towards “big data” and the recognition of the diversity of essential perspectives grants managers bring to the table.

What I love most about working in philanthropy, but particularly in grants management, is that philanthropic culture is a learning culture.  We get to test theories and execute strategies to find solutions for public benefit.  Through affinity groups like the Grants Managers Network, we are able to discuss successes and failures, share feedback from program staff and grantees and find common ground to move forward in ways that are beneficial for the field.  Exploring these relationships has led to conversations on how philanthropy can best use “big data.”  Program officers and senior leaders interested in tracking the performance of their grants often turn to the grants management department to help collect information.  Grants management departments looking to keep pace with the trend have started to employ grants analyst to help analyze grantmaking and draw relationships between what works and where to make improvements.  It is a natural fit for a department that has historically been a go to resource for information about grant making.

While the analytical aspect is an obvious benefit grants management departments can offer that will elevate the role, I believe that our best contribution to the shift towards big data is our ability to be honest about data.  Grants managers have a track record of being innovators because unlike other aspects of grant making, there is no sense of territory or ownership over best practices.  We believe that sharing knowledge makes for better grant making and this honest exchange allows us to disseminate information without ego and truly learn from one another.  Grant managers continue to push the field towards grant making transparency and effective practices.  As we continue to hold our place as the managers of our organization’s data we must keep an eye on the trend and ensure that we are sharing with one another what we see is working and where we see improvements.  We have witnessed within our own space how transparency can improve technical grant making processes, with data and analytics moving into our wheelhouse, we have an opportunity to translate our successes to the strategic grantmaking functions.

Perhaps the most exciting shift I have seen recently is the emphasis on the diversity of perspectives within grants management departments. Unlike other professional positions, there is no designated career path to become a grants management professional.  If you take a moment to ask your grants management colleagues how they wound up where they are, you are likely to encounter several different stories representing wildly different paths.  Grants managers have degrees in law, business administration, accounting and non-profit management.  Many grants managers come with experience in fundraising and development and have even managed both private and federal grants for non-profits.  Foundations are beginning to recognize what an incredible knowledge base they have in their grants management departments.  I believe this trend will continue as resources like the Grants Managers Network and the Perfect Pitch Contest help grants managers crystallize their message and contributions in a way that organizations will recognize as truly essential to healthy grant making.  It truly is an exciting time to be a grants manager.



Joanna Willis

Joanna Willis serves as the Grants Manager at the Annie E. Casey Foundation based in Baltimore, Maryland where she brings her experience to bear in service of the foundation’s mission to improve the lives of children and families nationwide. She is passionate about ensuring that the organizations she works with and for they achieve their stated outcomes.