Defining a Collaborative Grants Management System

In our post, Unlocking Investment in the Social Sector, we described the research we conducted with CIVICUS to better understand the infrastructure needed to unlock investment in the social sector. But we’re not just researching and strategizing. we’re working together to define and implement a grants management process and platform that will increase the amount of resources flowing to social sector organizations in the Global South. Who better to work with to support this work then Laura Quinn, the founding Director of Idealware. Idealware publishes the industry bible on grants management systems – Consumers Guide to Grant Management Systems. This post, written by Laura, describes the process we’ve undertaken together with the CIVICUS team.

As a consultant to the Accelerator, I’ve been translating their vision and grants management best practices into a technology roadmap and a set of requirements for a grants management system.  It’s an interesting challenge. In what ways does the vision overlap with the features of a typical grants management system? In what ways does it extend beyond?

What we ended up defining was a system that is essentially a collaborative grants management system — one in which the Accelerator and CIVICUS can collaborate with each other, with grantees, and with other funders to reduce duplication, streamline steps in the grants administration process and support lower resourced organizations to access funds. 

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What are the primary characteristics of the system that we defined?

  • Easy access to all organizational information.  The system must allow us to easily see and manage all information about each organization, the people affiliated with it, the impact they’ve had and interactions we’ve had with them. We can’t build a useful collaboration with each other without knowing what conversations we’ve had, what we’ve accomplished together, the grants we’ve worked on together, and all the documents and history which has been shared.  
     
  • Ability to build out an organizational profile from external data. Our roadmap includes knowledge and information sharing that goes well beyond the grant portfolios that the Accelerator and CIVICUS are managing together. We envision centralizing information that’s collected from each of the two partners independently and other publicly available sources of information, such as grants published through IATI. Eventually, we’d love to be able to let grantees share their profile—including our formal risk assessment for them—with other grantmakers.
     
  • True online collaboration to better understand risk. Knowing our own tolerance for risk (Thanks Open Road Alliance for the Risk Management Toolkit) and then together, with a grantee, assessing the uncertainty and risk of a grant —understanding the context, the possible challenges to implementation of activities and a potential partner’s governance and financial controls, and more—by necessity requires discussion and the sharing of a lot of information. Our system will need to facilitate collecting information from potential grantees via an online portal—but more than that, we want to make sure that it allows staff to be truly helpful and tailor grants with the greatest likelihood of success.  We need to be able to pre-populate information that we already know (for instance, through information from another partner). If the materials submitted aren’t complete, we need to be able to have a real dialog to work together to complete them and to see in the system where we are in that process together.
     
  • User-friendly online portal and grantee workflows. We need to be able to collect not only risk assessment information but discuss ongoing financial and activity progress. It’s important to us that we can do that easily online together, with a system that works intuitively even on slow internet speeds and for users who may not be native speakers of English.
     
  • Detailed grant monitoring and payment workflows. For our grants to newer organizations with a shorter grants management track record we need to make the payment and approvals process transparent and predictable. The system must be able to track payments, requirements and approvals in detail, and let all involved easily see what’s been paid and what is still to come and when.
     
  • Multi-organization approval of grant reports. In the grants management model that we’ve defined, the Accelerator staff will do day-to-day grants administration, but CIVICUS staff manage the grants program. They will need to easily view and approve progress reports from grantees.   This means the system will need to support CIVICUS staff’s ability to easily see what they need to review without wading through a lot of extraneous information.
     
  • Adaptive grants management that tracks both formal and informal feedback.  True collaboration with a grantee involves more than just structured reports.  The system should let us share feedback, make changes to activities, deliverables and agreements. The platform should capture call logs, site visits, and other interactions. It has to support processes for addressing issues raised by grantees and conducting more formal evaluation down the road.
     
  • Internal and external reporting. To close the collaboration loop, we need to be able to easily
    generate reports—to allow CIVICUS and the Accelerator to understand the status of grants and grant cohorts, to provide status back to donors and to the international aid community as a whole through publication of grants via IATI standards.

We’ve taken to heart the challenge raised by our friends at Thousand Currents and written about by Jennifer Lentfer at How Matters. She challenged us to develop a process and platform that is genuinely grantee-centric and shifts power. A platform and process that is responsive, flexible, aligned with grantee strategies, tolerates risk, supports collaboration, acts on feedback, supports quality dialogue, focuses on long-term outcomes. With this platform we are figuring out how to do that at scale. Once we move to the next phase of platform development we will work with a range of users to collect their feedback and ensure the system meets their needs.

And finally, perhaps more important than any specific requirement, we’ll need a system that will allow us to start small and build out over time. In keeping with our iterative development approach we plan to roll out an alpha version of the system for just a handful of grantees, and need to be able to do that without breaking the bank. At the same time, the system needs to be able to scale with us to be able to handle many more grants and grantees over time. We know that some of our future needs won’t be completely typical, so we need a vendor partner who’s willing to build features for custom needs in the future.  

What vendors did we consider? Who did we end up choosing? Stay tuned for the next post.