Blur the Lines, Sharpen the Work

Blur the Lines, Sharpen the Work

This issue of GMNsight is co-produced by GEO (Grantmakers for Effective Organizations)

This article was collaboratively authored by Jessica Bearman, Bearman Consulting; Sara Davis, Director of Grants Management, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and Marc McDonald, Director of Grants Management, AARP Foundation.

One of the great challenges in any organization, and one that reaches across all sectors is making sure the ideas and vision of the organization are in sync with the practices and operations needed to implement them well. Philanthropy is no different. Grantmaking practice is the “how” of grantmaking: decisions about how grants are structured and deployed, application and reporting processes, systems and requirements, and all the many explicit or tacit assumptions about what combination of grantees and grant structures make up a successful portfolio. Although not often described this way, practices are the most public and direct expression of what a grantmaker values. They are the first — and often the only — thing that the community sees of the funder. For all of these reasons, grantmakers can learn and strengthen their work by bringing together the two sides of their “brain” — grantmaking programs and grantmaking operations — more explicitly.

If we agree that practice is fundamental to, or at least a part of successful strategy, it makes sense that we’d think and talk about how grantmaking structure and process can best support grantmaking goals. But these conversations are often missing or don’t include the right people. When these connections are missing or fuzzy, there is usually corresponding fuzziness about the information that might be needed to know if it’s working. For example, some funders describe themselves as providing risk capital, but haven’t had an explicit conversation about what constitutes a “risky” grant. They may not have determined how much of the portfolio should fit those criteria. And they may not be collecting key data to reflect on whether they are hitting their target over time.

Although many funders value practice in theory, it’s not always evident in their day-to-day work. In a recent GMN survey of about 500 grants managers*, the vast majority of respondents stated that their boards didn’t “get” the connection between how grants were structured and their ultimate success, and nearly half believed that their CEOs lacked a firm grasp of this connection. More concretely, fewer than half reported that their organizations evaluate practices, have practice-related goals in their strategic plan, invite feedback on practices, engage grants management in leadership conversations or discuss practices at the board level or during staff meetings.

Grants management is a linchpin

Some grantmakers, on the other hand, are deliberately working and learning across the operation/program divide in ways that build knowledge and effectiveness. In these organizations, grants management has frequently assumed a new and more central role, integrally tied to learning and thoughtful implementation of grantmaking. It makes sense. First, grants management systems hold massive amounts of data about grantmaking implementation. As technology has improved, the potential for pulling useful and actionable information from these systems is ever greater. Secondly, grants managers are generalists and process specialists, with knowledge and understanding of grantmaking practice that crosses the borders of different program and issue areas. Their birds’ eye view across portfolios has the additional advantage of prioritizing the interests of the foundation as a whole, rather than in a particular program area.

Connecting the process and systems people with the program people allows for fluid conversations and learning to take place throughout the lifecycle of a grant. For example, data about average grant term or percent of restricted versus unrestricted support are tracked and made available at key moments for monitoring. Program staff can learn in real time about the structure and details of their portfolio—geography, focus, type of organization, population served or other key indicators. When grants management participates in early program conversations, systems can be set up to serve program goals and data can be integrated into decision-making. But to accomplish this level of integration, grants management-focused staff need to be in the room at the right times – to listen, participate, and even facilitate important conversations.

It is also true that some grants managers lack the right background or temperament for an expanded role. They may function as “rule police” in their organizations, a legacy that’s hard to shake. Even for grants managers with greater interest, credibility, expertise, and opportunity, the reality of limited time and resources means that the day-to-day demands of grants management may make it hard to find time to proactively analyze and share data, contribute to strategy conversations, and gather data and feedback. To make the shift to a more strategic role, many grants management professionals will need to step up and fully engage with the opportunity to more effectively and efficiently oversee their grants.

What’s different in foundations that have blurred the lines?

There are some common themes in the foundations where the role of grants management is more integrated and the relationship between strategy and practice takes a more holistic approach.

  1. Articulated intentions and assumptions Change begins with explicit, organization-wide conversations about intended outcomes for a grant or grant program and hypotheses about how practices could support that result. These conversations permeate the organization, from the board to the administrative staff, and make it possible to figure out what kinds of questions to ask and what kind of data to collect.
  2. Meaningful upstream engagementGrants managers get involved early in the process, not just as clean-up or compliance on the back-end of a grant after all decisions are already made. Grants managers are there as strategy design and evaluation are established to ensure that data and systems are set-up to support the knowledge and goals of the program.
  3. Cross-cutting relationshipsGrants managers are highly networked within the organization, maintaining cross-disciplinary relationships with program officers, senior leaders, learning and evaluation staff, and finance. Their operational expertise is highly valued as a way to support effectiveness and create organizational connections. They are facilitating and leading projects throughout the organization.
  4. Data and systems expertise — Grants managers and other staff are using data and systems effectively to ask and answer questions and to learn as they go. The organization is using data and technology to understand the impact of their practices and to assess practice change over time. The organization is using technology to make processes easier and more effective for grantees.
  5. The right people in the right jobs — The organization has made or is making the structural and people changes to keep the grants management function current. This holistic approach to grants management that coordinates multiple grant activities across departments requires individuals that have an understanding (or sufficient interest to develop the understanding) of multiple disciplines across the organization. These individuals are problem-solvers working to maximize each grantee’s probability for success.

Blurring the lines does not happen magically. Senior leadership must actively support a new approach to grants management. As a result, grants managers—ideally in coordination with other departments—need to make the case to senior management about the advantages of greater integration between operations and programs. For most organizations that have made the case, buy-in has been swift throughout the organization, with the foundation president and, in some cases, even the foundation’s board leading the charge.

In a sector without much external feedback and where the work is lauded as an act of benevolence, it can be hard to devote much energy to considering the question of whether how we’re doing our work is as effective and high-impact as other strategic elements such as who and what we fund. But for those funders concerned with learning more about our work and growing the impact of what we do with (relatively) limited funds, it’s well worth consideration.

*GMN and the Foundation Center recently launched a survey of program officers and senior leaders that will help to complete our picture.



Jessica Bearman (Bearman Consulting) works with foundations and other mission-based organizations, focusing on organization development, facilitation, planning, and project R&D to help them become more intentional, effective, and responsive to the communities that they serve. As lead consultant to Project Streamline, she has worked with GMN over nearly a decade to minimize the burden of application and reporting practices.  She speaks, writes, and blogs regularly on the topic of funder practices and values.

Sara Davis joined The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in 2011 as the director of the Grants Management Department. In this role, she is responsible for ensuring that grantmaking operations, systems and data support the mission and strategic goals of the Foundation.  The Grants Management team focuses on building efficiency and quality in Foundation operations and streamlining internal processes and associated communication.   The team is also responsible for grant compliance, making sure that the Foundation adheres to legal requirements for private foundations and to related best practices in the field.

Marc McDonald joined AARP Foundation in 2012 as the Director of Grants Management. In his role, Marc oversees the application, award, assessment and accountability of all AARP Foundation grants and provides guidance on the Foundation’s strategic grant making. Focusing on a streamlined approach towards grant making to outcomes, Marc has developed new grant making processes and workflows to align AARP Foundation’s grant making with its mission. Marc also ensures timely reporting and compliance for nearly $80 million in government grants received by AARP Foundation.

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