Prioritizing Grants Management: An Unsung Key to Effective Funding

Emma Relle

Often, when I hear talk about funders and the ways they can achieve impact, the conversations tend to revolve around the same few groups: program staff, senior leadership, and boards. No doubt, these roles are essential for driving impact in philanthropy. But, in my position at CEP, I get a front-row seat to the critical role of another group and the fundamental work they do: grants management staff.

Organizations like PEAK Grantmaking have for years highlighted how effective grants management practices contribute to advancing equity and opportunity in philanthropy, and rightly so. In my own work with funders, I’ve been particularly struck by the foundational (pun intended) connection between good grants management and effective, values-driven grantmaking.

Oftentimes, in my role as a senior analyst at CEP, I’m asked to connect with grants management staff — grants administrators, database managers, grants operations staff — about the grantees we’re surveying for their organization’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR). Through these experiences, I’ve gained insight into the integral role that grants management staff play not only in maintaining systems, but in connecting teams within a funder, driving strong relationship-building with grantees, and assessing a funder’s grantmaking work.

From Information Management to Relationship Management

Of course, one crucial aspect of good grants management is to successfully manage and make useful (and broadly accessible) all of the information that funders collect from and about their grant partners. At the start of a CEP engagement, I often work with the team or individual responsible for grants management at the funder to pull information about its recent grants and grantee partners for the GPR. In doing so, I gain high-level insight into how this information is stored and managed, and perhaps more importantly, how this work is prioritized at the funder.

Prioritizing this work has implications that are far-reaching. Looking beyond just how these practices affect a funder’s engagement with CEP, grants management is essential in a number of contexts:

  • Maintaining a single source of reliable data to which staff across all funder teams — finance, marketing and communications, learning and evaluation, programs, and others — can refer.
  • Communicating consistently with grantees across various departments, initiatives, and campaigns.
  • Ensuring that program staff can not only reach the grantees they regularly work with, but can connect grantees to one another, or equitably offer resources relevant to grantees working in a particular area of work.
  • Institutionalizing knowledge so that, when there is inevitable staff turnover, there are robust records of information about the grant with minimal lapses in communication.
  • Championing efforts to streamline grant processes to be more efficient and valuable for grantees and staff members alike.
  • Leading data collection of grantee demographics, which can be used in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, equity analyses related to a funder’s portfolio, strategy development, and more.

On a broader level, an effective grants management team can serve as one proxy for the strength of relationships that a funder has with its grant partners. To be explicit, I’m not referring here to the strength of relationships that grantees have with individual staff members, but rather how a funder as an entity prioritizes relationships with grantees. For a funder to truly serve as a partner to its grantees, it needs to know the who, what, and why of each of its grants — and the quality of this fundamental information is mediated and enhanced by a funder’s grants management team.

Making Space for the Work

It’s clear that at a baseline, good grants management requires careful attention to detail and a systematic approach, as well as other considerations that may depend on each funder’s more particular context (size, number of grantees, priorities, etc.). Across the board, though, the most important ingredient to achieving success in grants management is the capacity for staff to dedicate their time and resources to prioritize this crucial work.

My work with grants managers has given me a more nuanced appreciation of not only how critical these roles are to a funder’s operations, but how varying and complex they are. The work of populating and maintaining grants databases feels less like a technical checklist and more like a feat of intentional, meticulous composition, serving as the connective tissue that binds together efforts across a funder towards greater collaboration and, ultimately, impact.

Of course, none of this can be achieved unless a funder puts the structures in place to ensure that its grants management staff have adequate capacity to fulfill these critical responsibilities. For some smaller funders, it may be unavoidable that grants management is one of a number of responsibilities in any given role, rather than a dedicated role itself. But at the minimum, I hope that funders consider spotlighting how important this work is by ensuring that staff have the training, resources, and support to invest in this work. And here at CEP, we’ll continue to help funders recognize and act on how important it is to invest in this work, particularly with the lens that it will enable the performance and cohesion of the entire organization.

Emma Relle is a senior analyst, Assessment and Advisory Services, at CEP. Find her on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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funder effectiveness, funder-grantee relationship, funder/grantee relationships, grantee relationships, grantmaking practice, grants management
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