3 Steps to Optimize Your Grants Management System

Do you feel like your grants management system (GMS) is no longer meeting your needs or are you having trouble remembering why you made the decisions you did during implementation? You may be in need of a system ‘refresh’ or optimization. Optimization involves leveraging the features and functionality offered by the system and fine-tuning processes to meet the needs of a foundation.

Who should consider a GMS optimization?

It might be time to optimize your system if you identify with any of the following scenarios:

  • You wonder if you’re making the most of your grants management system.
  • You implemented the system a few years ago and haven’t been able to keep up with updates, including new features. 
  • You are about to undergo a change to your grantmaking and wonder if your system will be able to support it.
  • You wish you could do something in your system that you think you’re currently unable to do.
  • You are using or developing shadow systems to support your work.

These are just a few of the reasons to dedicate some time to figuring out whether your system, or even an aspect of your system, can be optimized to support your needs. Doing so can alleviate frustrations and shadow systems and increase efficiency.

Here’s how to do it in three steps: Audit, Synthesize, Optimize.



You have to fully understand your existing process and resources before you can determine which areas of it need to be optimized. An audit is a chance to inspect, ask questions, and document findings. When it comes to optimizing a grant management software, there are three main aspects to examine: System, Settings, and Process. Performing an audit equips you with the information you will need to fine-tune your system and processes so they work together seamlessly.

Note: These steps can occur in any order, but doing them together will give you the full picture of what you need and the available options. This method can be applied to optimizing the whole grants management system and all processes or to a single process that you feel needs improvement.

a. Audit your system. 

Auditing your system is an opportunity to refresh your knowledge about what the system is capable of and how much of it you are using.

To do this, review the features and functionality offered by your grants management system to understand its full capability. Note which features you use, how much you use them, and how you use them (or which ones you’d like to use and how). There may be available features that are not included in your subscription tier or are available for an additional cost. If you don’t know what a feature is, schedule a time to speak with your account representative. 

Be curious. This exercise is also an opportunity to identify areas of the system you need to learn more about. If your contract is up for review, this exercise can help you determine whether you are signed up for the subscription level that best meets your needs or if there are features you want to add on.

This exercise is also an opportunity to identify areas of the system you wish to learn more about and continue your learning journey. Be curious. 

A word of caution: using every feature is not the same as optimizing your system. If, for example, you don’t have an external review process, you don’t need the external reviewer portal, or if you only make grants in U.S. dollars, you don’t need to enable the multicurrency feature. Use only what you need to do your work today – don’t configure or use things just because you can.

b. Audit your settings.

The level of configurability for each grants management software varies, but whichever you use, you have some control over its settings. Auditing the settings helps you understand how your system is currently configured and which configurations can be modified.

This is an area where I recommend digging deep. Not only should you review workflows and statuses to ensure they still align with current practices, but you could review all templates (application and report forms, emails, letters), coding, fields, roles, and permissions. 

Reviewing roles and permissions might reveal new options that have been added or that you need to create a new role, or eliminate one that is no longer relevant. You might have users that need to be marked inactive. (Reviewing your active internal users can help you right-size your contract.)

You might discover you now have access to configure aspects of your system that are new or you weren’t previously aware of. You may identify something from the system audit that was listed as included under your subscription tier but is not enabled in your system. 

Keep in mind that some of the configurable pieces may not be visible to you. Engage your account representative to have them do a review of your configuration to determine what could be adjusted to better suit your needs. (You may want to wait for that conversation until you have also completed your process audit). 

As you are looking through your settings, consider whether they are configured to best support your needs and processes. Take careful notes on the adjustments you are considering.

c. Audit your process.

In order to know whether you are leveraging your GMS to best support your needs, identify all of the processes it is intended to support.

I like to start from scratch, as opposed to building off of existing plans, to ensure all assumptions are explicitly stated. Begin by documenting or mapping your process (here is a tool you can use). If you have existing documentation, use this as an opportunity to update it as needed.  

Be sure to capture the full lifecycle of a grant and any activities that surround grantmaking, such as budgeting or board meetings. Where do grants originate (internally or externally)? What are the stages a grant goes through? What tasks occur under each stage and who performs them? How do you do your grant reporting? If your foundation supports multiple transaction types or requires different levels of approval, do they have unique workflows? 

Know your grantmaking process inside and out, including the tools/templates/resources that you use to complete the process and every exception to the rules and when it applies. 

Look for redundancies, unnecessary tasks, and bottlenecks. Identify opportunities for efficiency or automation. Where can you simplify? Knowing what's possible in your system, how might you refine your process?

In some cases, you may look to modify your system to support your process. In others, you may modify your process to leverage what is offered by your system.



Once you know what your system is capable of and what your needs are, the next step is to identify the features you want to adopt or explore and the settings you want to adjust to streamline your process and better leverage the system, fine-tuning settings and processes so they work harmoniously. 

Bring together all of the information you gathered during the audit of your system, settings, and process to make recommendations for how to optimize your system. Note the scale of those changes, who are impacted by them, and the decision-making structure at your organization. Identify the resources you need to help achieve the change, including funds, people, and time. Consider the level of engagement needed from colleagues for input, testing, or training. Will you need to update your documentation? Do you have a test environment available to begin working on updates and socializing changes or will that need to be done offline? This will inform how to manage the change process and how to structure the work.

How you change is often almost as important as what you are changing. Keep in mind that change can be hard for many people. The excitement you have for optimizing the system may not be shared equally by your colleagues. Engaging them through the audit process can be a good way to build a shared vision and create openings for change. Make sure your planning includes opportunities for communications related to changes that have been decided and training opportunities when warranted. (See this article on change management.)



The optimization stage is where you begin to test and implement the items you identified during the audit to improve your grants management system and process. Now that you know what is available to you, what you’re using, and how you want to do your work in the future, identify features to turn on or settings to adjust. 

Iteration may be part of your optimization process. You may find that you identified a possible improvement, but the feature didn’t work the way you expected it to, or the change felt overly burdensome or overwhelming. Make adjustments and try again. You may also find that your organization’s interest in change is lacking and you may need to roll out a series of changes over time. Sometimes tackling a small problem and providing a better solution can help build momentum for further improvements. 

You may be able to make all of the changes you identify at once, or you may need to roll them out in stages. It’s okay to iterate – you may try something and realize it needs to be adjusted or find that the experience is different than the expectation. You may not address everything in one optimization, and process changes may occur down the line that requires that you revisit these steps. Keep auditing, optimizing, and iterating until it becomes second nature. 

If you’re a current GivingData client and need help with optimizing your system:

  • Reach out to GivingData. Use a quarterly meeting (or request an additional meeting) to review the results of your audit. Your Client Success Manager can help to address any issues and provide feedback or recommendations.
  • Reach out to one of GivingData’s partners for support. They provide a range of support from conducting audits to implementing changes. They bring their experience working in the field of philanthropy as well as with other GivingData users to help GivingData clients implement and optimize their systems.
  • Find answers on GDCentral. Leverage the knowledge and experience of your peers by asking for help.

If you have any questions about optimizing your system or if you would like support in your optimization journey, please reach out to us at One of the most rewarding aspects of our work is helping funders optimize their GMS, as it often provides opportunities and can alleviate frustrations and shadow systems. is a boutique consulting firm focused on the intersection of business process, end user, and technology needs of grantmakers. We work with clients across the United States and around the globe to identify and implement efficient, effective, and intentional approaches to grantmaking and related processes. 

Mary Kadzielski has more than a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector, working in pursuit of making the world a better place and helping organizations be more efficient and effective. Her consulting work has focused on strategy, operations, business processes and continuity, and change management. Mary has an MBA from Cornell University and Queens University and a Master’s in Wild Writing from the University of Essex. Prior to switching to a consulting role, she served as COO of an environmental nonprofit. If you’d like additional information on any of the above or support with your optimization, please contact Mary at

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