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From Cardboard to the Cloud: Grantmaking Systems in an Era of Collaboration and Learning
April 6, 2016

(Adriana Jimenez is grants manager at the Surdna Foundation and also serves on the board of directors of the Grants Managers Network.  She regularly contributes to Transparency Talk, discussing issues pertaining to transparency, data, and grants management.)

AjimenezThe Surdna Foundation’s first grants management system was made of cardboard: it was a shoebox filled with index cards. (Next there was a custom-built system, followed by an off-the-shelf installed one). For decades, this box served the foundation’s basic record-keeping needs, but technology –and transparency – eventually took precedence.  

Now in its 99th year, the foundation has since ditched the cardboard for the cloud. In 2015, Surdna transferred its grantmaking database to the workflow- and cloud-based system, Fluxx.

Moving to the cloud has helped the foundation become more open, streamlined and transparent.

These benefits were not accidental. Our decision to switch grants management platforms arose from a 2012 three-year strategic Roadmap which recommended the following changes in support of mission: 

1) Working more collaboratively with grantees.

2) Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

3) Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

To implement these changes Surdna’s Roadmap suggested retooling outdated systems and processes. It was clear we’d need a new grants management system: we’d reached the limits of our next cardboard box.

Surdna’s transition to the cloud highlights how foundations are beginning to use grants management systems to inform and improve their overall strategic directions. Through the use of data- and community-driven platforms, funders can support their efforts in collecting, harnessing and sharing better information, while working more collaboratively across teams and beyond.

Here’s how our new grantmaking system is helping us advance Surdna’s strategic goals.


1)  Working more collaboratively with grantees.

Cloud-based platforms provide actionable data on-demand. This has been empowering for staff, particularly those who previously lacked direct contact with our grant information (and those with busy travel schedules).

Phil Henderson, President of the Surdna Foundation, says: “Our new system has made data accessible on the fly. I can now review and approve grants from any location and drill down to get more information.” (And by “drill,” he means literally – he recently approved a grant from his dentist’s chair.)

"Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes."

Beyond its streamlining implications, this opens new channels for deepening our connections with grantee partners and empowering our senior leadership. For example, while on the road the president can now use organizational and grants data to help him strategize for site visits, or identify grantees to greet at a reception. With the aid of a mobile app a data point becomes a real person, fostering face-to-face collaboration.

Via the cloud-based grantee portal, invited applicants can now work collaboratively with program officers throughout the proposal-writing process and get feedback from staff in real time.

Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes. For instance, in our previous system grantees had no way of accessing their “final” proposal (with edits made by Surdna’s program and grants management staff) online; now they can view revisions in real time, as well as access information on upcoming payments, reports, and past grants.

For Jose Garcia, Program Officer for the Strong Local Economies Program, the portal has expedited the proposal formulation process and created a new, direct line of communication between program staff and applicants. Moving to the cloud has “decreased bureaucracy in our work with grantees and prospective grantees, allowing greater responsiveness to both. It has eliminated unnecessary paperwork so we can spend time on the important stuff.”

By “important stuff,’ he means our mission, and the people working to make it happen. Streamlining our processes means grantees can spend more time on their own mission-related activities, rather than draining resources on fundraising.

In a recent survey, grantees described the portal as “accessible,” “user-friendly,” “easy” and “organized”. 85 percent of respondents were “satisfied” to “very satisfied” with the accessibility of Surdna’s application forms.

But there is room for improvement. Grantees felt ambivalent about their level of satisfaction with the portal as a tool for communicating with Surdna staff. Only a total of 23 percent were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied, while 1/3 were “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied,” and 52 percent were “unsure”.

By making future enhancements to the portal we can continue to unlock its potential as a robust communication tool.


2)  Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

Unlike many installed databases (designed primarily for grants managers), our workflow- and cloud-based system is used regularly by everyone on staff, from the receptionist to the president. Working on a single platform has reduced shadow systems while supporting a more holistic understanding of our work across programs.

Intuitive searches and dashboards provide a birds-eye view of Surdna’s grantmaking landscape, past and present. This has aided our cross-programmatic learning:

“One of Surdna’s strengths is that each program exists within a larger ecosystem of all programs. In the Thriving Cultures Program, we also think in terms of Sustainable Environments and Strong Local Economies [Surdna’s other 2 programs areas]. We can now view the arts in that broader context,” says Shin Otake, Program Associate for the Thriving Cultures Program.

Shared workflows help his team (and others) keep track of grants in the pipeline: “the grant approval process from invitation to approval is seamless. Any member from my team or the Office of Grants Management can see the status of any grant at any given moment, or create reports to map out where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

"Using data- and community-driven platforms, funders can better share information and collaborate internally and externally."

Increased collaboration among finance, grants management, and program staff has also improved our internal controls.

For example, the finance department can now reconcile grants payments by running monthly reports in the system. The timeliness of these reports is key, as it allows grants management to address errors early on, and provide accurate spending data to program staff for budgeting purposes.  

Non-grant contracts (such as fees for consultants, research, grantee convenings, etc.) have also migrated to our grants management system, where they can now be approved and monitored in a central location by Surdna’s Chief Financial Officer. For Controller Matt Walegir, “this has provided a great oversight procedure which did not exist before. We can now get a complete picture of where our contracts are at any given moment.”

Tracking non-grant contracts in a grants database has significant implications beyond internal controls and budgeting. By co-mingling contracts and grants in one space, we are reminded that our tools for impact extend beyond traditional grantmaking. At Surdna, we also have program-related investments (also tracked in Fluxx), mission-related investments, contracts, funder collaboratives, and of course, communication.

Thinking of these “tools in the toolbox” holistically is critical for foundations as they continue to look less “traditional” in the future.

3)  Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

This priority has the greatest implications for advancing Surdna’s commitment to transparency.

Helen Chin, Director of Surdna’s Sustainable Environments Program, says the new system has “opened up how we interact with the grantmaking process and compliance protocols. It has allowed staff to access reports and other data without having to bypass its gatekeepers, the Office of Grants Management.” 

The “democratization of data” she describes has been a major cultural shift at Surdna, and will continue to transform the way foundations work as the boundaries between different roles are shifted. For example, if program staff can access reports and other data on their own through streamlined processes, the role of grants management can continue to become more strategic, helping foundations interpret their data (rather than merely provide it) to drive decisions. Data-driven foundations can learn from their work over time and share their lessons with the field, helping them become more transparent about their work.

A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that most foundations’ top barriers to achieving transparency are staff-related: 31 percent do not have the time to invest in working to be transparent, and 28 percent lack consistent levels of transparency across staff.

Staff limitations such as these can be appeased by putting the right tools in the right hands (if you hired the wrong hands, that’s a different story!). Cumbersome systems – not people – are what often create stopgaps and inconsistencies.

Fortunately, technology can capture such stopgaps.

Our new system enables the sharing of data with the sector through its ability to communicate with external datasets. One example is our adoption of the Foundation Center’s GeoTree, a taxonomy to classify grants by geographic area served.  This information can now be aggregated into the Foundation Center’s repository and made available to a community of funders, non-profits, and researchers seeking to understand the broader funding landscape.

Taken further, foundations can expand the capabilities of their grantmaking systems through the integration of third-party programs to enhance data analysis, visualization, and operations.  Grants management systems are just beginning to facilitate the connection of their platforms with tools like Tableau, PolicyMap, Census Data Mapper and Foundation Maps to help funders make better sense of their data and aid them in decision-making.

We’ve only scratched the surface. For Jonathan Goldberg, Director of Grants Management, Learning, and Information Systems, “The real power could come from what we learn and share with others outside the foundation.  Consider all the data that foundations currently maintain, and all the untapped knowledge that we might extract by aggregating and sharing that information within and beyond the grantmaking community.  It’s something this platform is tailor-made for, and it could be transformative to the field of philanthropy and those who benefit from it.”

As we enter a new era of collaboration and learning, we’re excited to explore the vast possibilities of continuing to break down foundation silos through cloud-based systems.

We may not have all the answers yet, but when we do we promise not to hide them in a cardboard box.

--Adriana Jimenez

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