Seven Habits of Highly Effective Grants Managers

Being effective is not a talent that most of us are born with; we have to work at it. And a lot of what drives our effectiveness are the habits we practice. Our habits may be willful or unintentional, good or bad, but they always shape our lives and our organizations and when adopted with intent, they can drive results.

If you constructed a grants manager superhero who helps her organization achieve its peak potential, what habits would she possess? What would she do to make her organization as effective as possible? Based on the work of the GEO community, we’ve identified seven practices — habits — centered on relationship building and learning that most directly lead to effectiveness.

Habit 1: Walk in grantees shoes.

When grants managers have empathy for grantees, they craft processes that are not only responsive, but also have grantee buy in and support. They think and act with grantees’ experience in mind so that the organization can support grantees in ways that enable them to succeed. And at the end of the day, a grantmaker’s success is dependent on grantee success. For example, one GEO member encourages its grants managers to serve as board members for local nonprofits. Others create advisory boards of grantees to provide regular input.

Habit 2: Build strong relationships up, down and across the organization.

Relationships drive grants managers’ ability to establish honest dialogue with colleagues and with grantees. Those who invest in these relationships understand the goals of key stakeholders and understand issues from multiple points of view. This understanding builds trust. This allows connected grants managers to be heard when they raise tough questions or propose new ideas. Consider simple habits like coffee breaks and lunches with colleagues or other kinds of social activities to create the space for relationships to grow.

Habit 3: Ask questions. Lots of questions.

Highly effective grants managers aren’t shy about unleashing their curiosity and using powerful questions to spark conversation and learning. Imagine asking questions like:

  • Given the pool of proposals, where are there gaps that might influence our ability to achieve our goals?
  • How might we reduce process time and what impact might it have on our grantees and their ability to achieve results?

These kinds of questions lead to new and actionable insights. They also require grants managers to insert themselves in conversations before, during and after a grant.

Habit 4: Make process work for grantees and for the organization.

Effective grants managers remember to ask: does every step have meaning? Is it critical or is it nice to have? For example, the Lancaster Community Foundation decided to eliminate grantee reports for a new capacity building initiative. Instead they brought grantees together for facilitated peer conversations. As a result, the foundation got better and richer information and grantees benefited from shared learning and by building new peer relationships.

Habit 5: Incorporate learning into the process.

Learning shouldn’t be an add-on or something that is done after the grant — highly effective grants managers look for ways to make every step in the process a learning opportunity. For example, when a grant opportunity is announced, one GEO member hosts an open house with grantees. Staff get immediate feedback in terms of whether or not grant guidelines are clear. They also hear how nonprofits are thinking about responding to the call for proposals. We’ve also seen examples of grantmakers rethinking site visits to be a learning forum for the foundation staff and the grantee staff to dive deep into a particular issue. (Check out GEO’s recent publication Learning Together for more ideas!)

Habit 6: Reflect and discover insights.

Effective grants managers take advantage of the birds-eye-view they have of their organizations to spot trends and patterns before anyone else. It’s hard to find the time to reflect and surface the insights buried in our work, but the best way to make a habit stick is to incorporate it into daily routines. For example, you can conduct before or after action reviews into standing meetings or schedule unstructured meetings for reflective thinking with colleagues.

Habit 7: Proactively share knowledge and insights.

Highly effective grants managers refuse to be information hoarders. They don’t wait to be asked; they create time to communicate and engage with colleagues (this also ties back to habit number two!). Because they have strong relationships, they know how to communicate in influential ways. The following examples highlight the many possibilities for grants managers share:

  • Create a grants management newsletter to provide updates as well as insights.
  • Establish a standing agenda item at organization staff meeting for the grants management team to share insights from the past quarter or month.
  • Use internal messaging systems like Slack to share interesting tidbits and insights throughout the day.

The secret insight about these habits is that they focus on basic activities that many grants managers already do every day. At GEO we believe that small actions — in this case, just one habit — can have big impact. After all, if you are climbing a mountain, you don’t expect to get to the top in one step. In fact it takes tens of thousands of steps, as well as persistence, patience and support from your friends and colleagues. The same is true for habits. When you first start it, it feels hard; but the more you do it, it just becomes a natural part of your day. Grants manager roles are changing in ways that make them even more integral to organizational success. Focusing on habits grounded in learning and relationship building will help grants managers achieve their peak potential.



Heather Peeler

Heather Peeler is vice president of member and partner engagement at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. She leads GEO’s efforts to engage and mobilize members in adopting grantmaking practices that make the biggest impact on nonprofit performance. Follow her on Twitter @hapeeler.

  • Gretchen Schackel

    Great article! Thanks for the reminder 🙂