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There’s no doubt that the rise in nonprofit technology is a game changer. Organizations now have access to sophisticated tools that can radically streamline their operations, create stronger connections to their constituents, and enable data-driven, strategic decisions. This all adds up to more impact.
But sometimes it’s a double-edged sword.
Nonprofit leaders are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of technology solutions in the marketplace. And in some cases, they might dismiss them altogether, thinking nonprofit technology investments aren’t possible with a nonprofit budget.
Fortunately, especially for grantmaking organizations, there are solutions within reach for all organization types and sizes.
That’s not to say it won’t take time and work to determine your organization's grant management software requirements. And this is a critical part of the process. However, understanding the primary categories of grant management systems will quickly narrow down the options, making it easier to compare and decide.
Although technology for grant management is always evolving, there are currently three types of offerings in the marketplace. These aren’t firm dividing lines, but rather a way to cluster similar solutions so you can more clearly see what you need.
Simple online tools are a great step up from PDF applications and spreadsheets, but they’re not taking advantage of all that technology has to offer the grantmaking process.
These solutions are typically not designed for grant management specifically, but they offer the functions and features that a grant manager might need. For example, an online application form, customer relationship management (CRM), or cloud-based collaboration tools.
Although some of these tools may have combined features that work together, this category is not capable of handling the entire grant lifecycle. They’re ideal for smaller organizations, or as a temporary fix until their budget allows for more robust solutions.
✔ Free or low cost
✔ Easy and quick to implement
✔ Doesn’t require extensive IT knowledge or infrastructure
✔ Doesn’t offer a single, streamlined solution
✔ Limited or no reporting abilities
✔ Can only support a straightforward review process
✔ Must adjust your program process to fit the way the system works
Custom, enterprise solutions are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They’re designed specifically for grantmaking organizations and have every feature you might need.
These systems manage the entire grant lifecycle, integrate with your other technology, and allow for complete personalization every step of the way. You can make them do just about whatever you want. However, there’s cost involved. Implementation may take months and require a great deal of time from your staff, both for setup and training.
This category of grant management software is perfect for very large organizations that have many different programs and administrators.
✔ Single solution for entire grant lifecycle
✔ Complete customization and integration
✔ Specialized for the organization in question
✔ High cost
✔ Lengthy implementation
✔ Staff time investment for setup and training
✔ May require IT infrastructure or support
A few systems sit between these two options. They’re capable of managing your entire grant lifecycle, but at a lower cost than custom enterprise solutions.
These systems rely on some prebuilt tools for efficiency. However, they also allow for great flexibility in customizing your forms and workflows. That means your team doesn’t have to change its processes and adapt to the software. It’s the other way around. The other common feature is integration. Since many nonprofits are already using tools they love, these platforms work with them, rather than trying to be everything.
This category of grant management software works for nonprofits who need a lower price point and a faster implementation, but don’t want to sacrifice customization or key features.
✔ Manages the entire grant lifecycle
✔ Affordable cost
✔ Faster implementation
✔ Can customize to fit your existing process
✔ Doesn’t require extensive IT knowledge or infrastructure
✔ Could have limits to customization
✔ May not offer all features desired (compared to custom, enterprise solution)
✔ Staff time investment for training or implementation
Finding the Sweet Spot
For most organizations, the flexible, all-in-one platforms offer the best bang for the buck. They include what’s needed to make the most impact - at a price that works for nonprofits.
It can be incredibly tempting to pick a popular system to get up and running as quickly as possible. That’s understandable. Nonprofits have a million competing priorities. But just because a product has brand name recognition doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right fit for your organization’s needs.
Before you choose a grant management system, here are four considerations to add to your list. Plus, a few ways to test out each one.
If your organization has a complex workflow or specialized reporting needs, it’s crucial to ask plenty of questions about the vendor’s capabilities. Also, keep in mind - even if your process is simple now, it could grow or change as your organization does, so flexibility is always essential.
✔ Provide specific examples of what you want to accomplish and have them show you how they’d make it work.
✔ Ask what they mean by flexibility - some systems can customize fields but have limited ability to adjust workflow.
While a grant management system might replace some of the online tools you currently use, there will always be opportunities to integrate with other systems. Even if you don’t need them now, knowing it’s a possibility is a smart move before investing.
✔ Make a list of all the apps, software, and other online tools you currently use and ask for a demo so you can see it in action.
✔ Ask if there’s an additional cost for custom integrations, and what systems they’ve been asked to build them for most often.
Getting your grant management system set up quickly is a top priority. Find out how long the implementation will take, how much staff involvement is needed, and if there are any one-time costs.
✔ Ask for a written implementation plan that includes meeting dates, contact person(s), and what’s required from your staff at each step.
✔ Request a client reference to find out if their implementation was smooth, and it matched the original plan.
You’re buying more than the software; you’re also buying the service. You’ll need help from customer service throughout your relationship. Plus, new employees will need training.
✔ Check out their customer support services. Do they have a knowledge base? Can you submit tickets?
✔ Don’t overlook your gut feeling when you talk to people from each potential vendor. You’re starting a relationship with a partner that will power your giving. Do you sense their enthusiasm for supporting mission-based organizations?
With an understanding of the grant management solutions landscape, you can more clearly see where your organization should focus its search. But regardless of which vendors you shortlist, be sure to focus on flexibility, integration, implementation, and client support. Considering these factors will ensure that you choose a system that works now and well into the future.