A Talent for Streamlining

A Talent for Streamlining

Grants management professionals are integral to developing a streamlined and sensible way of making grants. But a highly effective and efficient grantmaking process doesn’t always happen easily. It’s more often the product of thoughtful design or revision, and requires gathering data, making a compelling case for change, navigating organizational culture, redesigning business processes that may be deeply entrenched, communicating internally and externally, testing and assessing new processes, and (often) keeping the trains of the old process running simultaneously. To be streamlining champions, grants management professionals need to have the skills and attributes to take on this kind of complex and sensitive work.

When funders hire for grants management, they generally have a check-list of skills and experience related to record keeping, due-diligence, financial acumen, and database management, along with professional attributes like “detail-oriented” or “self-starter.” But what characteristics, mindset, or attributes do great streamliners need? What does it mean to have the right “talent” for streamlining?

Attributes to seek when hiring for streamlining champions

Several experienced grants managers shared their perspective on the kinds of skills and attributes they seek when hiring and training teams that are ready to build sensible and effective processes.

  1. The sector ecosystem perspective. Great streamlining staff understand that their work is part of a larger ecosystem that includes not only the other perspectives and priorities of the foundation but also the broader needs and challenges of the nonprofit sector.  It’s especially helpful to have grants management staff who come from the nonprofit sector or really understand the nonprofit perspective. “Being able to represent the voice and interests of the grantees is very important,” said Sara Davis, Director of Grants Management at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. “If you have an authentic understanding of grantee concerns, you can grab the foundation’s attention when you say, ‘this is a waste of our grantees’ time.’” To get staff who can bring this authentic understanding, she looks for people with experience in the nonprofit sector.
  1. Relationship oriented. Grants managers may not hold the positional power to make change happen in their organizations. Instead, they rely on their ability to influence. The most effective streamliners build relationships that enable honest dialogue and collaborative problem solving. It’s important not to take things personally, said Davis, and understand where resistance to ideas and changes might be coming from. Gwyneth Tripp, Grants Manager for Blue Shield of California Foundation, asks potential hires: “How do you work with others to accomplish a complex goal?” She then listens to see whether applicants have an affinity for customer engagement (especially when push comes to shove), and whether they know how to ask for help and offer it others.

An ecosystem perspective matters for grants managers’ relationship to colleagues as well. Grants management interacts with legal, IT, finance, evaluation, and program staff. During a change process, although all are working toward the same ends (ideally), different functions will naturally have different priorities or lenses based on where they sit. The more that grants managers can understand where colleagues are coming from and facilitate mutually satisfying solutions, the more valuable and successful they will be. “I think of it as customer service,” said Tony Bowen, Director of Grants Management and Operations at the Democracy Fund. “”In addition to being empathetic to grantees, we have also have to have strong customer service skills with our internal customers and focus on their needs.”

  1. Open to technology replacing or changing what you used to do. Not so long ago, the work of retyping proposal or reporting information into grants management systems and making copies for board books could take up most of a grants manager’s time. With technological advances and streamlined processes, these tasks are increasingly automated, making way for other, more proactive and strategic work. “The work of a grants management team will change as better systems and technology emerge; a high-functioning team will welcome those changes,” said Satonya Fair, Director of Grants Management at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She added, “Just because you are busy with loads of tasks, does not mean you are addressing the most qualitative components of the work. I don’t want a team member who clings to old ways of doing things because they are worried about their jobs. I want a team who is open to changing their work because new technology can take care of the basics, which should allow them to focus on adding value to our program staff and grantees through training, problem-solving and collaboration.”
  1. Insatiably curious and data-loving. There’s so much day-to-day work for grants management to do that it’s easy to fall into a reactive mode unless staff have curious minds. Building better systems and processes requires staff who are always asking questions and looking for data to understand and assess the status quo. Many funders have mountains of potentially useful data sitting in their grants management systems, but someone has to be proactively tracking it. If grants management always waits to be asked for specific reports, the organization might miss out on analyses that could inform decision-making.

Having staff that are both curious and – yes – even a little nerdy about data means that grants management can proactively look for patterns and answer questions that are useful to the organization.  GMN’s resource, Assessing the How of Grantmaking, drew from the experience of more than 50 experienced grants managers to identify the core questions that every funder should be able to answer using (mainly) existing data.

  1. Accomplished communicators. “When you think about streamlining, you might not think about having a member of your team with strong communications experience, but you actually need this capacity more than a lot of other things,” said Fair.  Just as grants managers need to be relationship-oriented and able to communicate comfortably and casually, they also must make the case for changes in ways that resonate with multiple audiences. It takes finesse to connect operational details with strategy so that other staff and leaders understand that good, streamlined practices are central to effective grantmaking.
  1. Comfortable with ambiguity.  Change is a constant, and organizations that continually strengthen and streamline their grantmaking are always in some kind of flux. Grants management staff will ideally strike a balance between being diligently attentive to rules and being open to exploration and change. Sara Davis asks prospective hires: “What is a time when you were thrown into the deep end and didn’t have the answers and had to learn. How did you go about learning?” to gauge their ability to work through situations when the path forward isn’t clear. Gwyneth Tripp, Grants Manager for Blue Shield of California Foundation called this skill the ability to “equally hold an idea of where you’re going with where you are.”

Growing the talent you already have on staff

What if you already have a strong grants management team – or a team that you’ve inherited – and you want to help them grow into streamlining champions?  While some things, like comfort with ambiguity, are hard to teach, professional development can help to strengthen grants management professionals’ orientation toward streamlining. Here are a few ideas beyond the usual trainings and workshops:

  • Nonprofit board service: Grants managers can be encouraged to volunteer with nonprofit organizations. Serving as a board member provides a hands-on introduction to the full ecosystem of our sector and builds grants managers’ empathy for the grantseeking organization.
  • Travel and site visits with program staff: Joining program staff on site visits puts the work that grants managers do every day in context. “Grants managers can become process and paper-centric in their view, but when you see the context “on the ground” an organization in is operating from, you get why aspects of the process might be hard or confusing for them,” said Davis. Seeing grantees on their home turf may spark ideas for process changes to make things more straightforward. Grantees feel more connected with multiple points of contact within the organization, and might be more willing to provide specific feedback. And program staff are often glad to have someone along who can talk about grantmaking process specifics.
  • Coaching: Coaching isn’t just for executives! Grants management staff can benefit from engaging with a coach who can help them use their influence, feel confident about taking initiative, and work through ways to be most effective in their role. “Getting coaching has been particularly helpful in moving forward a long-term streamlining process so I can get feedback on how to think about who should be making what decisions and at what points, how to best partner with our senior staff, and how to improve my own management skills so I can best support our team as we carry out our streamlining efforts,” commented Bowen.
  • Facilitation and project management training: Streamlining, like any change effort, requires group process: surfacing ideas, discussing tensions and tradeoffs, making decisions, assessing progress, and making course corrections. Grants managers need strong facilitation skills and the ability to move complex projects forward, so look for workshops and trainings in project management, design thinking, and group process facilitation.

What other attributes do you look for when seeking streamlining champions? For more information about being a Streamlining Champion, visit Project Streamline’s Streamlining Champion Toolkit online.


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