Grantmaking is undergoing an evolution. Funders are scrambling to address new challenges and expedite access to capital for their many nonprofit partners. It’s a pretty remarkable change from just a year ago, when there was little motivation to alter the status quo of long grantmaking cycles and complex applications. It goes to show that nothing stays the same for very long – even philanthropy.
As a technology consultant for grantmaking organizations, I spend a lot of time helping funders evaluate their technology infrastructure, and when necessary choose new software to better manage their grantmaking operations. They often contact me after beginning their own market research and discovering that choosing a Grants Management System (GMS) is a highly complex affair, fraught with risk and uncertainty. There are so many options available and oftentimes no clear winner rises to the top of the list.
So here’s some advice to help any organization get off to a great start in the quest to find the best GMS:
Pro Tip #1: Forget technology for a moment. Start with people.
Many organizations start their quest for a new GMS because of a particular issue or pain point in their current system. They immediately begin evaluating technology in hopes of discovering a quick fix. I categorically believe that this is the wrong approach.
Technology exists to serve people — to help them achieve their goals, work more effectively, and encourage their creativity. The best approach to picking new software is to spend quality time with colleagues, co-workers, and grantees discovering their challenges and their aspirations. Bring them into the process via a selection committee and give them a voice and a vote. Encourage them to envision a future in which software and data not only overcome the current challenges du jour – but enable them to achieve their long-term goals and personal mission.
People join the nonprofit sector to make the world a better place. Understanding how they want to achieve that goal is the best first step toward choosing the right software.
Pro Tip #2: Don’t look for the perfect technology, look for the right technology.
I believe unequivocally that there isn’t a “perfect” GMS out there. Each has its strengths and differentiators, but no one system (GMS or otherwise) will ever match every wish-list item, use case, or requirement. As the saying goes, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. There’s no doubt there’s a GMS, possibly several, that will meet your organization’s most important needs and expectations. The key is identifying what’s critical, what’s nice to have, and what’s not really needed. Do you have multiple, highly complex review and approval workflows? Or are they fairly straightforward? Does your organization support multiple entities, programs, and grant types? How complex are your program budgets? Do you have an IT staff that will manage the care and feeding of your GMS, or will you rely on the vendor?
The answer to these (and many other) questions will help you identify what is most important for your organization, and that clarity is invaluable in helping to find and select the right system.
Pro Tip #3: Plan for the long haul
Choosing and implementing a GMS is an investment you’ll expect to generate value for many years. Selecting a system that meets today’s needs is important, but it must be capable of growing and changing with your organization long into the future. In a nutshell, your GMS should be future-proof.
As mentioned earlier, 2020 has witnessed a significant change in grantmaking processes for many organizations. Most grantmakers closed their doors and implemented a remote-work policy. They also made unplanned grants at lightning speed to help their partners stay afloat and serve their constituents’ unanticipated needs. Many were caught unaware and scrambled mightily to accommodate these changes.
Ensuring your GMS can flex to accommodate the unexpected and unplanned is crucial. Any GMS must offer a depth and variety of functions and configurations to manage new processes and new programs. This is table stakes for a GMS. But there are other, equally-important considerations regarding longevity and flexibility.
Consider the vendor as closely as their software. Will they become your strategic partner, offering ideas, insights, best practices, and long-term engagement and support when it’s most needed? Do they have a large user community that will become an integral part of your network? Are they positioned financially and organizationally to continue their work for many years to come? Do they have a long history of serving grantmaking organizations and nonprofits? And do they have a proven track record of investing in their products, developing new features, and modernizing their platform? And do they offer professional and/or managed services – to consult with and coach you, and offer you a staff person or two if/when you need it? A GMS is not just an investment in new tech, but an investment in the future. Select a system and a strategic partner that will grow with you and support your mission for years to come.
Selecting a new GMS is a daunting task. Many grantmaking organizations index on the here and now, addressing only those challenges and pain points experienced with their current system. This approach may help solve for a particular issue, but it comes at the risk of repeating the past as new challenges arise. A more thoughtful, planful, holistic, and future-proof approach is needed.
Give voice to all stakeholders, including grantees, to develop a comprehensive vision for the future. Look for technology that is highly configurable, flexible, and capable of growing with your organization’s ever-changing needs and priorities. You are ultimately investing in much more than a new platform. Hitch your wagon to a vendor that will become your strategic partner. Ensure engagement and support that goes far beyond the initial implementation. And, find a company that comes with a dynamic community of users that will help you discover new ideas, best practices, and inspiration.
Written by Sam Caplan and originally posted on sgENGAGE