From Chaos to Client Success: A Grant Manager Story

Community foundations are established to serve the people in their geographic region, but many don’t have competitive grant processes for local nonprofits.  And the community foundations that do may have widely varying focus areas, evaluation processes, and grant budgets. As the saying goes: if you’ve seen one community foundation, you’ve seen one community foundation.

Prior to becoming a Client Success Manager (CSM) here at Foundant, I worked at a community foundation with a relatively small discretionary grant budget. We did our best to modernize the competitive grants programs, but the purchase of additional software to manage the process was not a priority. In 2007, grant applications and all attachments (audits, 990 tax documents, annual reports, strategic plans, fundraising plans, etc.) had to be delivered to the foundation office. And we needed ten copies of everything, please. Applications were then grouped, boxed up, and delivered - often by courier - to committee members for review. This is how the process had gone for years, in our foundation and many others.

The following year, when the discretionary grant budget took a vacation courtesy of the stock market, we decided to try and streamline our grant processes to simplify things for both our applicants and review committees. After interviewing past grantees and re-organizing our grant strategies, putting our application online was the next logical step. I mean, how hard could it be? Why not just go paperless? Because, you know, “the Cloud!”

Ultimately, we did create an online process, but it was spread precariously across multiple platforms. While this cobbled-together mosaic of free and subscription-based software may have been a sensible solution for the time-being, it was in many ways just as inefficient as our paper process had been. Multiple products with distinct looks and functionality made consistent branding impossible. We built online application forms using one system and online reporting forms using another because of the limited functionality of each. Online evaluation consisted of fillable PDFs, password-protected pages on the foundation’s website, file-sharing sites, and email. Our reporting capability was as sophisticated as copying and pasting responses into a spreadsheet in order to tally evaluator scores or grant totals.

Although important documents like our grant agreements, declination letters, and grant reports were finally online, they were in multiple locations with little to no ability to interpret data. There was less paper and perhaps faster communication between nonprofits and foundation staff, but the disjointed systems were perhaps even more difficult for staff to manage than pounds of paper.

Over the years, at conferences around the country and in listservs or meetings, I’d ask colleagues how they ran their grant processes and what software they used. Responses were similar, many still accepting hand-delivered stacks of applications at 5:01 p.m. on the last day of the application process. A few had all-in-one software solutions that managed almost everything but cost many thousands of dollars to set up initially, and many more thousands to maintain annually. No one had the perfect solution because there is no such thing, but I did learn about a company that was listening and responding to the needs of the sector and was dedicated to growing the capacity of philanthropists to invest in communities around the world.

As a Foundant CSM, I’ve been able to help funders consolidate their grantmaking systems, so that everything related to a nonprofit grant request can be found in one place. Evaluators can review an application and enter their comments into a form on the same screen or look at financial patterns over time in a nonprofit’s 990s through the Guidestar integration.

Instead of foundation staff locating and sending a grantee a past request document they can’t find, grantees can simply log in to the system and find documents in their organization history. Board members can access meeting minutes or review guidelines in the shared documents folder, and administrators can write comments in the digital margins of a grant application before sending it back to draft status for an applicant to correct. It still doesn’t fold laundry, but GLM makes grant management the intentional, documented, organized, effective process that it can be.

Speaking from my own experience, it’s a long way from cobbling together many different systems, and I’m proud to be a part of helping other foundations find their way out of the chaos.

To learn more about Ashley and the rest of the Foundant team, visit us here.

About the Author

Ashley Harper

Ashley has worked in the nonprofit community in Memphis since 2005 when she joined Hands On Memphis. In 2006, she saw the organization through a merger with Volunteer Memphis, and in 2008 Ashley joined the staff of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis as a program officer. That same year, she became the Director of Grants and Initiatives, managing all the foundation’s competitive grant programs. Ashley oversaw the development of GiVE 365, which became a national model for collaborative giving programs in community foundations across the United States. She has been a leader in the community foundation field and served as the Chair of ProNet, the national professional development group for program staff in community foundations.

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