Best Practices for Switching Grants Management Systems
We interviewed GivingData clients to understand their experience with implementing a new grants management system, what they learned, and best practices they recommend to foundations switching to a new platform.
Implementing a new grants management system can feel like a daunting task. It typically involves gigabytes of data migration, hours of meticulous coordination, and a fair number of change management challenges.
It’s a task that typically falls on grants managers who may already feel strapped for enough resources and time.
Our experience managing implementations for more than one-hundred foundations has revealed that switching a GMS can be made far less stressful than you think. The key is to go into it with plenty of advance planning and a clear-eyed view of what’s in store as the process unfolds.
To help grant managers or others who are starting down this road, we interviewed two GivingData clients who recently completed their own implementations. We asked them what they learned through their experience and which best practices they would recommend to others looking – or preparing – to make a switch.
Who we interviewed
Heather Moore, Grants Manager
- Foundation: The Just Trust
- Staff size: 13
- Who uses the GMS? The finance & operations team, program team, VP of Brand & Communications, and CEO
Nailah Hart, Grants Manager, and Katherine McGonagle, Grants Associate
- Foundation: The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation
- Staff size: 17
- Who uses the GMS? The grants management team, program team, and Executive Director
What prompted you to switch to a new grants management system?
Heather: As a new organization, our VP of Finance & Operations really spearheaded the search for our first grants management system. We were interested in finding the best ways to track grantee interactions, manage budgets, analyze future spending, and capture the full grantmaking lifecycle of The Just Trust. We also wanted a solution where we didn’t necessarily need to have someone with programming experience who could write code on the backend. We’re a small team and we needed a system to accommodate that.
Nailah & Katherine: We were previously in the same iteration of our old grants management system for longer than we both have been at the foundation, so this was the first switch we made in years. We wanted a more intuitive system that could display certain information we wanted to share.
What were some anticipations or concerns going into implementation?
Heather: I had been through an implementation previously, so I had an idea of what it looked like and what the steps would be. I went into this knowing there are a few things that have to be ironed out prior to implementation.
Nailah & Katherine: We were mostly worried that it would be too much work for our team and that it would be hard to juggle our normal day-to-day work. We were also worried about not having a grants management database for a period of time in case something got delayed during implementation.
Did it go as expected?
Heather: I can’t think of any surprises we encountered. Because we were well prepared by the GivingData implementation team and had experience with prior implementations, we knew a lot of what to expect.
Nailah & Katherine: The implementation process was very well organized. We did a lot of planning before and it helped to understand the pieces that went into the implementation at the start of it.
What staff members were involved in implementation and when were they brought in?
Heather: At first, we started with two key members of the program team on the implementation call. After that, I was the point person working with the GivingData implementation team and would bring back questions to the program team, so they could weigh in on the more programmatic questions rather than having to sit and hear about how to build a form.
I think for foundations larger than The Just Trust or who have more time for implementation, having more touchpoints for members across the foundation throughout implementation would be helpful.
Nailah & Katherine: We both led the implementation and brought the remaining staff members [program team and Executive Director] in the last two-to-three weeks of the process. That was always the plan. Then we planned multiple trainings and provided office hours for the staff to allow everyone to ask questions specific to their work.
What helped ease the transition to a new grants management system?
Heather: We went into this knowing what we wanted but also understood that with a new system we had to be flexible and adapt to what the process could be with the new efficiencies available in the system.
In implementations, it’s helpful to be thoughtful and methodical, but at the same time not delay in making decisions. Have a good handle on the processes that everyone at the foundation wants to see for the grantmaking lifecycle. Know what your workflow process is and map it out, but also know that you’re going to pick up efficiencies along the way and might see that some steps could be cut out or a step needs to be added.
Also, have a good handle on what you want your coding to be. Imagine what reports you may want to pull in five or ten years. Are you capturing those custom fields, what would the categories be, what would it look like?
Nailah & Katherine: We did a lot of planning ahead and there were a few steps we took that really helped ease the transition:
- We had feedback sessions with staff to gauge around how they wanted to use the system. We received feedback from them and created a plan from there.
- We outlined what we wanted to stay the same and what we wanted to update. After that, we made sure we had all of those updates in place before implementation, including all the new templates.
- We spoke to some people that use GivingData and are similar to our foundation’s giving and staff size.
- We pulled a lot of our email and document templates, lists, and searches from our old system to ensure we had them ready for the transition to GivingData.
All this planning ahead helped us focus on what we wanted to add to the database. There were things we weren’t doing on our old system because it wasn’t intuitive, and learning about GivingData gave us ideas on how to utilize our database more.
If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?
Heather: I think we approached our implementation in a slightly different order than we usually would because at we were originally planning to open up an application form sooner in the process. Looking back on it, I do think it might be beneficial to just follow the implementation plan that was beautifully laid out, if at all possible, within an organization and not try to launch an application at the same time as implementation.
By following the process more closely, I would have been a bit more focused on working with the program team to understand the process as we want to see it and go into that first implementation meeting with that workflow carved out.
Nailah & Katherine: In the midst of all of this, we had a leadership change and a lot of unexpected internal situations that happened out of our or GivingData’s control. I would say if a foundation has the bandwidth to either hire a part-time temp to handle some of the day-to-day work in case of emergencies, or at least have a plan to protect the workload of the staff members handling the implementation, we would recommend that.
What advice would you give to foundations looking to transition to a new system?
Heather: If you’re worried the implementation may be daunting, just remember that all this hard work is going to pay off so much. It’s going to pick up so many efficiencies later on in your work, so even if it means that extra lift in the moment, it will pay off.
Don’t hold back from dreaming big and seeing how the grants management system can handle all aspects of your grantmaking cycle. That happened to me in our implementation when I told the GivingData implementation team “hey, there are team members at our foundation using a Google Doc to do this…could we do that in GivingData?” They responded that the tool Super Docs could accomplish that for us, and I didn’t know what that was. Now I love Super Docs!
Lastly, try not to implement too many new platforms at the same time. If your organization is trying to implement a GMS, a project management system, and an expense management system, all at the same time, it's helpful to stagger the rollout of the systems. Team members will learn what they have to learn first and foremost and may not spend as much time truly learning each of these tools if you try adding them all at once.
Nailah & Katherine: We both got into the weeds thinking about the capabilities and wanting to customize things to a certain extent. There are so many possibilities in GivingData, but don’t get overexcited and customize things too much. Keep the rest of your foundation’s staff in mind to ensure their needs are met.
Planning ahead is also huge. It greatly reduced our stress during the process.
You should also really understand what your organization needs in a system, how you’re going to utilize it, and what your non-negotiables are. We also recommend getting the buy-in of staff who will be using the system. For example, during our selection process of a GMS, we had our program officers look at the system.
Best Practices from GivingData’s Implementation Team
GivingData’s implementation team has helped dozens of grantmakers switch grants management systems or implement a GMS for the first time. While every foundation’s situation is different, they’d like to leave anyone looking to make a switch with a handful of additional best practices to prepare for implementing a new system:
- Have a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for your implementation team – who will be the “super user” or the person who will maintain the grants management system? Who is the decision-maker who can keep everyone on track and reduce back and forth with the implementation team?
- Understand what information matters to you and your team. Make sure your applications, award letters, grantee communications, and reporting templates are ready to go with all of that necessary information included.
- Have an open mind to workarounds, new ideas, and new processes.
- Clearly identify which problems you want your new grants management system to solve.
- Make use of the many resources available to you – including the community, Knowledge Base, and Support Desk.
Keep an eye out for our upcoming guide with more advice and best practices for implementing GivingData as your new grants management system. Subscribe to GD Insights to be notified when that guide is released.
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