Grantmaker Tools: Why Foundations Shouldn't Fear Implementing New Technology


Foundation Implementation Tools

Technology has never played a more important role in the way grantmakers work. The way foundations communicate, collaborate, and organize their workflow is now almost entirely digital – and for many, it all takes place in the cloud.

That’s why selecting and implementing the right technology to do the right job for the right organization is so critical – and at times so stressful.

The rapid development of grants management technology over the past several years is a boon for grants managers and the entire philanthropic community, said Olga Lech, a philanthropic account supervisor at the New York City-based asset management firm, Geller and Company. “Although options are great, choosing one can cause a lot of stress and anxiety,” she added.

This is especially true for grants managers and others within the foundation and nonprofit world with minimal technology experience. Many times it’s these folks who are tapped to take the lead on ushering in new technology.

But don’t fear. With proper planning, good communication among stakeholders, and a focused long-term outlook, the stress from implementations doesn’t have to be debilitating – and shouldn’t prevent foundations from seeking out exactly the technology they need.

It all starts with planning and choosing the right tool for the job.

“Choosing a vendor is a commitment,” Lech said. “It’s almost like buying a house. The idea is that you’re going to be sticking around a while … and it’s no small investment in resources.” Foundations need to not only think about current needs, but also what they might need in the future, she said.

For example, if you know your foundation plans to grow and your volume of grantmaking increases, you’ll want to choose a solution that can adapt to that increase, she said.

But before making any decisions it’s critical to understand that planning is a process. And for the process to go as smoothly as possible gathering the right planning team is critical.

“Too many times we see organizations go out and try to find technology solutions without doing the work it takes to put a planning group together,” said Anthony Pisapia, associate executive director at Tech Impact, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that provides technology and support to other nonprofits. “That’s when we see these projects begin to spin out. And no one wants that.”

A good place to start is at the board level, Pisapia said.

Create a small core steering committee from the board, preferably board members who not only have an interest and knowledge in technology, but who also assert some authority in the organization. Then it’s essential to involve key staff members – those that will be using the new technology. These staff should have great communications skills and be champions for change.

Lastly, Pisapia said, bring in an impartial third party if possible. This could be a friend of the organization or a trusted consultant – someone with technology experience and good vision. “Giving all these folks leadership and the ability to make decisions is critical to the success of projects like these,” he added.

An inclusive process is best.

Perhaps the most important task of the planning team is to take the pulse of the staff. This will avoid – or at least mitigate – difficult change management issues down the road, Pisapia said.

“Never forget about the people that will actually be using the technology,” Lech said. “As squishy as it sounds, people have feelings. And their feelings get hurt if they feel like they haven’t been considered.”

And people with hurt feelings don’t often become champions of new technology. In fact, they may resist change mightily. “A good planning process gives people time to make their peace with the fact that change is coming,” Lech added.

Surveys, face-to-face meetings, and shodowing end users are all methods that allow the team to hear what each stakeholder expects from the new technology – what their fears are, and what they hope to gain from using it. But nothing beats meeting in the flesh, added Pisapia.

By completing a thorough and inclusive planning process, you’ve not only made sure that everyone’s feelings were considered, you’ve discovered the requirements that are most important for everyone in the organization.

The process can also help identify the organization’s evangelists or champions.

“You should never start a project until you have a sponsor or a champion – somebody with some level of influence,” Lech said. “That person can be your secret weapon. And when things get hard, this person can help convince the slow adopters not to be roadblocks.”

People don’t like change. Change is hard. But leadership especially needs to see change as an opportunity rather than something to fear. During a process of change, enthusiasm is contagious.

One Foundation’s Perspective

But enthusiasm alone won’t save you if you don’t devote the staff and time necessary to see the implementation through to completion, said Don Matteson, chief program officer at the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, in Getzville, New York. “Many times there is a capacity issue which makes it hard to spend time doing both grantmaking and the research required to seek out and implement new technology.”

The Tower foundation tends to be fairly aggressive technology adopters, Matteson said. “We’re a small shop with flexible leadership that’s open to trying new things. There’s a willingness here to adopt technology perhaps ahead of the curve.” The foundation has six staff and assets valued at about $150 million. Matteson described himself as an accidental techie, “doing the grantmaking by day and the technology by night,” a fairly common scenario in the foundation world, he said. Fortunately for Tower, Matteson has a background in technology.

Tower recently implemented Fluxx to help manage its grantmaking, so technology implementation has been on Matteson’s mind a lot lately.

It takes time and resources.

The amount of time a good-sized technology implementation takes can’t be underestimated, Matteson said. “With our Fluxx implementation for example, I wouldn’t say we underestimated how long it would take, but there are always things that you just can’t anticipate happening.” The discovery process, for example, was much more thorough than he anticipated. That turned out to be a net positive as it resulted in a much better system, Matteson said.

Even a seemingly simple move from a paper board book to a PDF board book takes more time and energy than one might think, Matteson said. “Instead of printing to a printer you print to a PDF. That seems straightforward. But then you ask, ‘How are we actually going to deliver these things?’ These files are getting to be pretty large. Email doesn’t work too well anymore.”

Issues like these are all compounded if you don’t have in-house tech expertise. “Because then you’re beholden to somebody else’s time line to some degree,” Matteson said. “Do the consultants have time for us? Is this a good use of their time and our money? Are they going to drop everything to work with us? Not likely.”

“Staffing concerns are a huge issue,” agrees Pisapia of Tech Impact.

Plan to implement new technology during a slow time of year – August for a lot of foundations. And create a realistic timeline and give the staff the time they need to do the job well. “Really think about what it will take to do this. It will take longer than you think,” Pisapia said.

“Once you think you’ve figured out the amount of time an implementation will take, extend it. It’s going to take longer. Maybe 50 percent longer than you think,” Pisapia said, only half-jokingly.

Is it all worth it?

From a foundation’s point of view, sometimes there is a little bit of sticker shock, Matteson said. From hardware, software, to bandwidth installation, configuration, and maintenance – it all adds up pretty quickly. “We tend to think every dollar we spend on technology is a dollar we’re not giving out in grants to help our core mission. But then you talk about operational efficiency and whether or not it’s going to improve our capabilities and it begins to make more sense.” Even the folks at the Tower Foundation who were skeptical up front are completely on board now, Matteson added.

Because board members have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization, they’re often very cost-conscious. If they don’t understand how the right software can actually enable staff to be more productive, it can be difficult to get approval for a good sized piece of technology, said Janna Finch, a market research associate specializing in nonprofit software at Software Advice, a Gartner company.

But it’s not always easy to recognize the true cost of time and opportunity in the nonprofit and foundation world..

“You need to look across a lot of different metrics instead of just the ones that poke up their head. You need to really think deeply about your work flow and all the tangential pieces that go into your current working methods and be comfortable envisioning a new and better way of doing things,” Pisapia said.

The work continues, post implementation.

Now that the investment has been made, the ROI justified, and the implementation complete, it’s time to sit back, take a deep breath, and relax, right?

Not so fast.

“I always warn people whatever the amount of time pre-implementation takes you need an equal amount of time in post implementation,” Pisapia warned. “You have to train people now and make them the experts in the new technology, because if they're afraid of it they won’t use it. They’ll go back to the old methods. The buy in is a lot easier if you have good training.”

What’s more, not everyone is going to be happy with the new technology at first, but it’s important to remain committed to the product, he said. “We’re going to be committed to investing in training and committed to using the tool. Then in a year we can assess how successful it is.”

It’s no secret that organizational change is hard and technology can be costly. Mission-driven organizations, with good reason, tend to keep their heads down and work on the issues they care about most – sometimes at the expense of back end capacity building.

“We always look to our grantees to be more effective, more efficient and have a greater impact, but we don’t necessarily feel the same pressures ourselves,” said Matteson, of the Tower Foundation. “We want the grant dollars to have a greater impact but we don’t necessarily want to change the way we do our work.”

But with technology becoming essential to the way foundations do their work – ignoring the need for new, smarter and more efficient grantmaking tools could be penny wise but almost definitely pound foolish.

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Written by Aaron Lester