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There’s plenty of advice out there about what you may need in a grants management system -- which features will make your program go, which functionality will best help your team, your reviewers, or your potential grantees.
But knowing what you want is not the same as being able to identify it. Nor is the grants management system buying process as simple as checking off a few wish list items and signing a contract. Your grantmaking platform is the cornerstone of your giving, and in light of that, at the center of your mission. You aren’t just picking a piece of software off the shelf; you are selecting a partner to help you deliver your grant’s impact.
How do you ensure you’re giving that heavy lift the time and focus it deserves? We asked some program managers who recently went through the grants management software research, review, and selection process what they learned through their experience. Read on for their advice to you.
The promise of a new, shiny system is exciting, especially if you are struggling with a poor process or legacy software right now. But rushing into a decision on a new grants management system can lead you right back to the same place -- disappointment.
Instead, take time to lay out exactly what does not work with the current system, and what needs and wants you’d like in the new, so you understand what grant management software features you even need to start shopping for.
“Really specify what you need and your end goal, and verbalize that,” says Jayme Jarvis, Senior Programs Coordinator of the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
“Be clear about why you want to move to a new technology, and the goals you want to achieve with it,” agrees Jill Fink, Executive Director of The Merchants Fund. “This will help you define the questions you really want to ask during your demos and ensure the vendors you are considering can show you the features important to you and how they will work. Don’t be afraid to speak up and get the information you need.”
As you make that list of requirements, it’s easy to think about what would help you do your job. But go a step further and consider what would make everyone else’s jobs easier, too. That goes beyond the rest of the staff at your organization -- what would make reviews easier for the review team? What would make the application easier for your would-be grantees? What would make accessing updates or reports easier for your board? All of this should be included in your grants management software requirements.
“Make sure you take into consideration all those who will be using your system and what roles they play. Put yourself in the applicant’s place, think of yourself as a reviewer, imagine how other staff will interact with the system,” says Beth Tasciotti, a Grants Manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Many of the changes and additions we decided to make had these many roles in mind.”
“Think about your program from a holistic perspective,” says II Luscri, Assistant Vice Provost for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis. “Think through the different components. Try to consider all the data you will want to make decisions, and the best way to go about getting that data.”
Once you know what you are looking for -- go out searching. There are countless places you can find information on the grant management solutions available: review websites, grantmaking association forums, referrals from friends in similar roles, and, of course, good old-fashioned Googling. Be sure to be as thorough as possible when conducting your grants management software comparison, ensuring the vendors that make your short list can deliver everything on your original requirements list.
“Oftentimes, smaller nonprofits don’t have the resources to investigate investments in technology well, and just go from word of mouth or work with systems that are overbuilt for what they need,” laments Jamie Flaws, Executive Director of Hope Chest for Breast Cancer, adding that taking the time to research and vet systems is imperative. "Work with a vendor that truly understands your scope of need and offers appropriately tailored tools.”
The sales process is a whole lot more than demos and price quotes. It’s the time to start a relationship with your prospective vendor -- and to make sure it’s the kind of relationship you’d want long-term. Be human, and expect your contacts to open up, too. Transparency and trust that begins here results in a partnership that will help your organization and its success.
"Take the time to find a vendor that works with you,” stresses Jeremy Sale, Selection & Recruitment Manager at the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation. “Choosing our partner has made a difference for us. We are working with a group of experienced, passionate individuals who make the whole process feel like family."
“Find software that fits with your organization, but also find a vendor you can connect and work with because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them,” agrees Alysha Barraza, Electronic Information & Design Department Coordinator for the Douglas Educational Service District. “Invest in a company that will work with you and be a good partner in the process.”
Once you’ve found the grants management software vendor right for you, build on that newly formed partnership through the implementation and training process. Be open, be honest, and ask all the questions. The more you share, the better your system can be set up for you.
"Learn as much as you can while you have your implementation specialist,” says Samantha Zinkand, Program Coordinator at the CCI Research Foundation. “It would have been easier to ask him to do updates for us, it was much more useful in the long run to have him show me and then have me do it on my own."
“Think of what you want to get out of using this system and communicate this to your Implementation team. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!” adds Tasciotti. “The more hands on you can be in the implementation process, the better, because you can understand how and why things work and you will be better prepared to help others using the system.”