December 15, 2020

How to Manage Grants: A Guide to the Grants Management Process

Are you or your organization new to grantmaking? Learn how to create an efficient grants management process that infuses your mission into every step, puts people first, and ultimately builds sustainable, positive change.


Whether you’re planning a new grant program or trying to improve one that’s already in place, it helps to break down the grants management process into steps. Let’s begin by talking about your organization’s “why,” as it should guide everything you do. 

1. Clarify Your Mission

This may seem like an obvious question, but what issues or problems are you trying to address? Getting crystal clear on your mission ensures you make strategic decisions throughout the grants management process. From defining your applicant criteria to selecting a review team, a well-defined mission serves as the north star of your program.

Let’s look at two examples. While these organizations are quite different, they’ve both identified the purpose and scope of their grant programs succinctly.

  • The Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation is a private charitable foundation dedicated to supporting community-based organizations that enhance the quality of people’s lives in Los Angeles County. The foundation’s focus areas are medicine, higher education, the environment, and the arts. 
  • The International OCD Foundation is committed to alleviating the suffering caused by obsessive compulsive disorder by awarding grants that will lead to advances and breakthroughs in scientific research. Their focus areas are research on the nature, causes, and treatment of OCD and related disorders.

Before you do anything else, work with your team and stakeholders to develop a brief mission statement and focus areas that reflect your grant program’s purpose.

2. Define Grant Applicant Criteria

Identifying who should apply to your grant program is another way to fine-tune your mission and focus areas. Ask yourself:

  • What types of organizations or individuals would have the ability or resources to address the issues we’ve identified?
  • Is there a geographic area where we’d like to focus our funding?
  • Are there any external requirements applicants must meet, such as 401(c)3 status?
  • Does our mission focus on applicants with certain attributes?

For example, let’s say you’re building a grant program with a mission to ensure quality STEM education for Hispanic children in Miami. You might want to ask:

  • Is your organization based in Miami, FL?
  • Is your organization a 401(c)3?
  • Does your organization have at least 3 teachers who are STEM-certified?
  • Is your organization staff or volunteers at least 25% Hispanic or Latino?

With grant management software, you could add these questions before the grant applicant starts the application, like a qualifying quiz.

3. Set Grantmaking Budget

Before you start building out your program, let’s talk about how to determine a viable budget for each grant cycle.

All grantmaking organizations must be conscious of balancing their assets with grant payouts. Whether your grant money comes from private donors, investments, or corporate profits, these sources can vary (sometimes dramatically) from year to year. It’s critical to have a long-term perspective that factors in these fluctuations. That way, your organization doesn’t overextend itself, risking its ability to give in the future.

You also want the ability to pivot quickly when emergency needs arise. Most of the time, the need won’t be quite as great as the COVID-19 pandemic, but being a responsive grantmaker means having a contingency plan in place.

While keeping assets in reserve is one option to manage variability from year-to-year, another is to continuously look for ways to reduce operating expenses. This might take the form of technology like a grant management system or a regular audit of external vendors.

As you develop your budget, sustainability is key. While you certainly want to make an impact as soon as possible, issues are often complex, and therefore require a consistent source of funding to make lasting change.

4. Create Clear, Streamlined Applications

Next, let’s focus on the cornerstone of a successful grant management process - the application. When designed well, an application should: 

  • Collect all the information necessary for reviewers to make the best decision
  • Save your grantmaking staff time from data entry, frequent questions, and managing files
  • Build a positive relationship with your future grantees

To accomplish these three goals, think about how you can anticipate applicant questions, remove unnecessary obstacles, and deliver compelling yet understandable grant application questions. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Keep navigation simple by removing unnecessary text, images, or links
  • Allow the applicant to create an online account so they can save and view their application
  • Write clear instructions with examples and definitions
  • Weed out questions or requirements that don’t impact the selection process
  • Offer the opportunity to upload multimedia files so applicants can fully express themselves
  • Build in integrations, like a way to upload files from cloud-based apps
  • Send automated follow-ups, such as confirming submission or decision timeline
  • Provide an integrated messaging system, so applicants can reach you easily

When applications have these features, it makes life easier for everyone involved in the process - the applicant, the staff, and the review team.

5. Establish a Review Team

The next critical step in how to manage grants is selecting your review committee.

You want to choose a set of qualified, diverse individuals who will take their responsibility seriously. As you’re considering potential reviewers, ask yourself:

  • Are they knowledgeable about your field/industry/topic?
  • Would they have any conflicts of interest?
  • Have they participated in a grant selection committee before?
  • Would their involvement add a valuable point of view?

Once you’ve assembled your team, think about how you can create a pleasant, seamless experience for your grant reviewers so they can do the best job possible. For example:

  • Clarify expectations with a job description that defines time commitments
  • Deliver a comprehensive orientation so they’re comfortable with their role
  • Provide an online account where they can access all their assignments in one place
  • Make it easy to see the application and scorecard side-by-side
  • Be accessible for questions

6. Confirm Scoring System

Before you begin assigning applications to your review committee, your next task is to make sure your scoring system is clear. 

If your review criteria are hard to understand, this is going to slow your reviewers down. They'll have to contact your staff or interpret on their own, which means your evaluation process is compromised. 

Here’s how to set up a scoring system that’s fair, consistent, and easy to use.

  • Provide your reviewers with a detailed definition of each criterion, so they’re reading each application through the same lens
  • Apply and define a weighted scoring system for each criterion
  • Host a discussion before the selection process to discuss and clarify the scoring system

With a grants management platform, you can configure the scorecard once, and then let the system provide real-time scoring at the touch of a button. 

7. Report on Outcomes

Finally, let’s discuss how to manage grant reports. While this is the last step in our blog post, it can (and should) occur throughout the grant management process. 

You can identify specific measurements from their proposal to use as markers for progress or select them together once you’ve awarded the grant. For example, an at-risk youth program might report on how many of their participants obtained their GRE, graduated from high school, or applied to college.

You’ll also need to decide how your grant recipients will report on their progress. Will you require periodic updates on how they’re using funds? Perhaps you’d rather have on-site visits or presentations. Just remember - you don’t want your requirements to be a drain on their time or resources. 

It’s also important to plan how you’ll manage all this data. You may want to consider grants management software that could streamline and organize feedback into useful insights, provide a dashboard with key performance indicators, and produce consolidated reports easily. 

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While the seven steps above represent the primary tasks of the grant management process, grantmakers should always take time to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t. There’s always opportunity for improvement, and that’s part of the process!



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