Philanthropy, Big Data, and the Evolution of the Grants Manager

06/22/2015

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The world is a complex place. No one knows this better than the people who make it their mission to help solve today’s most urgent problems.

Increasingly, foundations and other grantmakers are turning to the power of data – and technology that now makes access to that data possible – to help navigate the complexities of making change in a hyper-connected, interdependent world.

But having access to data is only the start.

Once the field has access to data, the question becomes, “How do we sort through the data that’s out there?” said Larry McGill, vice president of research at the Foundation Center. And increasingly the quest to answer this question is transforming how grantmakers do their work.

This transformation can perhaps be seen most clearly in the role of grants manager, McGill said. It turns out, grants managers hold a unique position within grantmaking organizations that allows them to not only sort through data, but also make sense of it and help inform decision-making throughout the foundation.

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“Grants managers can legitimately see themselves as having more power than they ever had before,” McGill said. “They can begin to think of themselves as having a much more strategic role in the conversations about the direction of the foundation.”

DATA, EVERYWHERE

Traditionally, the role of grants management has focused on the operations side of grantmaking, including compliance and data and records management, according to Michelle Greanias, executive director of Grants Managers Network, the Washington, D.C.-based national association for grants managers. “Grants managers are the experts on how grants are made, dealing with the policies, procedures and operations behind receiving, awarding, and monitoring grants,” Greanias writes.

While these critical responsibilities still reside within the grants management team, grants managers are beginning take on new roles – many times informally – reflecting new technology and new expectations about who collects and analyzes an organization’s data, and how that data is translated into knowledge that influences program direction.

“People have come to desire and expect better data when making decisions,” said Jacob Harold, president and CEO of Guidestar, the Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to providing information that advances transparency in the nonprofit sector. Combine technical advances with cultural changes, Harold said, and philanthropy is on the cusp of a qualitative shift in how it uses data.

And because of open APIs from Guidestar, the Foundation Center, the US Census and a host of others, as well as new grants management platforms that can pull in this data, grants managers now have unprecedented access. “The transaction costs of getting data has dramatically dropped,” Harold said. “You can do it all through one interface now.” It’s an interface grants managers use daily.

To be sure, assigning a department or a specific role to be the sole experts in this kind of data wrangling – sometimes known as knowledge management – is still a new exercise and philanthropies are still working out the kinks. But many are finding that grants managers are a natural fit. “All this data has become integrated into much of the work grants managers already do,” said Harold.

Now that foundations can more easily access the data, they’re thinking through the roles of who is going to handle it, said Melissa Extein, who until 2013 was the director of strategic learning, research, and evaluation for international programs at American Jewish World Service and is a now a consultant to foundations.

“Grants managers spend a lot of time with the data and are often the ones most familiar with the data an organization has. Though they may not be formally trained, they have a lot of knowledge and potential to be the ones supporting program staff with it,” Extein said. On the other hand, “program staff often times don’t have the skills or aren’t necessarily interested in the more rigorous data collection analysis. It’s not what brought them to the job. It’s not what grantmakers have been hiring for in that role.”

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Extein also said that grants managers are uniquely poised to see a portfolio-wide view of an organization’s grants programs. “Grants managers get asked by program staff to pull all kinds of data,” she said. “So they begin to see the trends. They get exposed to the wider more aggregate look at the overall grantmaking.”

What’s more, grants managers carry with them a certain amount of objectivity, Extein added. “You’re not so invested with a particular grantee, so can perhaps see what’s going on with clearer eyes. Grants managers can be a foil to the program officer,” she said.

THINKING STRATEGICALLY

Take the grants management team at Washington, D.C.-based Wellspring Advisors. “We tend to be the database experts and process experts,” said Kim Blanchard, director of grants management at the philanthropic advisory firm. And for that reason she said, “grants managers are the best suited to see that global view and see which patterns in grantmaking are worth exploring.”

For example, if Blanchard’s team were to look at all of the organization’s international grants, “we would be able to see exactly what we’re taking on and how we can support these grantees in all these different countries; what is this going to mean for sizes of grants, number of grants, and types of grants,” she said.

Before, this way of thinking about data was an informal and responsive activity for Blanchard. “But now we’re figuring out how my team can participate in a more strategic way, asking question like, ‘What does this mean for our grantmaking? Where might we be going? What data do we want to be collecting and what do we want to be learning?’”

“Getting this to be more formalized and proactive is the piece that’s changing for us,” Blanchard said. “Answering these questions in the beginning, knowing exactly what we’re going to be looking for in the data up front is critical,” she added.

GETTING OUT IN FRONT

At the Arcus Foundation, data-driven knowledge management is embedded in all of the foundation’s work, said Ericka Novotny, director of grants management at the New York City-based foundation focused on conservation and social justice. But it’s the role of grants manager, more than any other that is situated to respond to the growing relevance of data in grantmaking, Novotny said.

“As data-driven thinking becomes more important, the role of grants managers as the people that maintain the data and think about the data in a larger way becomes more important and more critical to the success and impact of the foundation,” said Cindy Rizzo, vice president of impact and learning at Arcus.

Novotny and Rizzo were part of the team that helped decide what kinds of data Arcus needed to be able to collect to participate in a wider scope of strategic decisions. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Arcus uses Fluxx to manage its grantmaking.)

In essence, Novotny said, we became part of the knowledge management process. “It’s sort of an intangible piece of our work, but once you’re part of the architecture behind it, you begin to understand a lot more the potential of data beyond just spreadsheets.”

Rizzo recognizes that knowledge management is still fairly new to philanthropy. “It’s not quite as fully baked as it will be down the line,” she said. “But no matter what happens with it, the role of grants managers will be a pivotal one in thinking it through.”

LOOKING AHEAD

“It’s challenging, but grantmaking organizations should definitely be paying attention to this,” Extein said. “It should be taken seriously.”

Seen traditionally, grants managers run the risk of being limited in their capabilities and capacity. “It can often be a particularly uncreative function,” Extein said. “But this piece of the work can really expand and open doors for grants managers to be used in new and important ways.”

As the role of grants manager evolves, so too will the skills necessary to flourish in that role. Data analytics and data visualization will become increasingly important for grants managers to master. As will the skills of organizational change management and process management, Blanchard said.

“If grants managers are going have a voice in what the foundation is learning, what [data] they should be collecting, and how they want to tell their story, foundations are going to have to change how they do things. People will look to grants managers to say what this will look like. And that’s really hard to say with certainty.” Grants managers are going to need to manage that process, she said.

To put it simply, information is power, McGill of the Foundation Center said. The challenge is to realize just how empowering it can be for grants managers. And potentially for grants managers, the result is an evolving role entrusted with responsibilities and clout not seen before.

Philanthropy should take note, Novotny at Arcus said.

“It should be recognized in some way that the grants manager role has more to it than operations, and it would be great if the larger philanthropic community understood this.”

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Written by Aaron Lester