The 30-Layer Cake of Grants Management

This post originally appeared on the Glasspockets blog.

Reality TV is not all mind-numbing. I recently discovered a baking show that had lessons to teach about working in the evolving world of grants management.

In PBS’s The Great British Baking Show, contestants test different recipes to showcase their baking talents. One of the top challenges on the show was preparing a cake with 30 perfectly distinctive layers. This was the ultimate feat because it would expose the mastery of the bakers’ technical skills.

While the bakers relied primarily on precision and rules to pass this 30-layer trial and other “technical challenges,” the winning bakers also demonstrated “soft” skills: they were creative, flexible, and collaborative; they worked well under pressure; and they knew when to ditch tradition and take a risk when the conditions demanded it. These are precisely the skills that today’s — and tomorrow’s — grants managers need to thrive in a changing environment.

This was not too different from the advice I’d heard at a recent Grants Managers Network (GMN) program, Become the Grants Manager of the Future: be flexible and open; be a chief problem-solver and a team-player; and understand the rules so you know when to break them. Grants management, like baking, requires precision, measurement and technique, but it also requires creativity, adaptability, and nimbleness.

Led by Sara Davis, director of grants management at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Daniel Weinzveg, an organizational consultant, Become the Grants Manager of the Future addresses the growing hunger (pardon the food pun) among grants managers to get clarity on where the profession is headed and how we can collaborate to increase our impact in the philanthropic sector.  The program captures the excitement around these new opportunities.

One of the session’s key points is that by connecting grants managers’ expertise in the “how” of grantmaking with the strategic side of grant practice, we can create frameworks that lead to greater transparency in order to support learning and collaboration. Operations can no longer be siloed from strategy, because transparency is the new norm.

In fact, there are many “new norms.”

The profession of grants management is rapidly evolving. The transactional elements of grants administration (e.g., processing grant requests, getting grantees paid, assembling board books) have always existed, and will remain critical to grantmaking organizations.

However, over the past decade technology has automated many of these processes. According to the 2014 GMN/Technology Affinity Group survey, 65 percent of foundations now manage some level of paperless grant systems. This has opened up opportunities for grants management professionals to shift into more strategic roles and collaborate more closely with program staff and leadership.

Grants management has also shifted as organizations have become more data-driven. Foundations now have access to vast amounts of information, and they are relying on grants managers to help them make sense of it.

Grants managers play a central role in collecting key data sets and trends about our grant portfolios over time, such as: demographic information about grantees and constituents served; outcomes, activities and indicators of success; statistics about average grant size/duration; geographic areas served; etc. We can also gather baselines about our internal processes to gauge efficiencies and stopgaps (e.g. turn-around time for making a grant, processing a payment, or reviewing a letter of inquiry).

Access to the right data – and knowing how to interpret it—can help foundations make informed decisions that lead to better outcomes in service of mission and grantees. It can help us set policies and procedures that are based on real needs and not arbitrary rules; it can support us in learning about our portfolios and making strategic course-corrections where needed;  and it can aid us in becoming more transparent about our work and measuring progress towards our stated goals.  We can also use benchmarks, such as Who Has Glass Pockets, to help in this endeavor.

The 2015 GMN Salary Survey found that grants management professionals spend only 42 percent of their time on “core” grants management functions.  Other job responsibilities include IT, evaluation, legal counsel, finance or working within grant programs.

The multi-functional nature of grants management provides an opportunity for transparency, as grants management professionals often act as a liaison between multiple areas of foundation work.

Meanwhile, this disparity presents a challenge: Are grants managers properly trained to step into leadership roles as data analyst experts and decision-makers? Do we all aspire to be?  Is there an obstacle among foundations who do not recognize this potential in their grants management staff? How can they support grants management in their professional growth?

So, as we become the grants managers of the future, what should foundations of the future look like? From a strategic standpoint, philanthropy leaders have many questions to address if they want to foster a data-driven and learning-based culture:

  • How can foundations leverage their existing data to make informed strategic decisions?
  • What frameworks can be put in place to integrate grants management as key contributors to foundation learning, analysis, and decision-making in order to benefit the foundations themselves and the grantees they support?
  • How can foundations incorporate effective practices into their strategic grantmaking?

Answering these questions is not an easy feat, but neither was baking a 30-layer cake on The Great British Baking Show.

Adriana Jimenez

Adriana Jimenez is Director of Grants Management at ASPCA and also serves on the board of directors of PEAK Grantmaking. Follow her on Twitter @ajimeneznyc.

  • Rikard Treiber

    Great article, Adriana! Adriana, Sarah, and Daniel identify perfectly the greatest challenge in grants management: Balance and creativity! Many of us are terrific in our knowledge and expertise around the rules of grantmaking laid down by the IRS and our individual grantmaking institutions, as well as the technological tools that help us carry out our work. The greatest contribution we can make to our organizations, profession, and philanthropy is to apply our creativity in nuanced ways. Creativity turns technology from a recordkeeping tool into a productive engine that can drive innovative grantmaking. And creativity turns grantmaking rules from constraints that inhibit us to guideposts that we help navigate, ensuring that we–our colleagues, institutions, and the field–are able to carry out their important work. Those that can apply creativity successfully will be the future leaders of grants management and grantmaking.