The Challenges Grantmakers Face in Supporting Technology

By Karen Graham, Idealware

Originally published by Idealware (March 2017)

Can grants managers play a role in helping nonprofits get the technology funding they need to be successful? I led a discussion on this topic yesterday at the PEAK Grantmaking (formerly Grants Managers Network) conference in Hollywood, California. The breakout session, “How To Spot the Missing Tech in Grant Proposals,” covered why and how technology often gets short changed, the planning knowledge and skill nonprofits need in order to thrive with technology, and what is needed for grantmakers to support nonprofits with technology. 

I asked participants to share what challenges they have experienced in regard to supporting technology, what ideas they had for improving systems and practices, and what they needed in order to make this possible. Their responses were so thoughtful that I wanted to share them here. 

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Our Grantees Increase Visibility by Updating Free GuideStar Profiles

By Gwenn Gebhard, Luther I. Replogle Foundation

As a foundation, it can be difficult to find ways (beyond making grants) to support our grantees and, at the same time, improve their visibility in their communities and the wider world. With this challenge in mind, the foundation’s board of directors and I developed a two-pronged project inspired by a webinar I attended in September 2016.

The webinar was hosted by Foundant Technologies, a grants management software company (and our foundation’s vendor since 2009), and GuideStar, a nonprofit that manages public data on all nonprofits operating in the United States. Working together, Foundant and GuideStar developed software called GuideStar for Grant Applications to pull information from organizations’ GuideStar profiles into Foundant grant processes through web-based links. Keep in mind: Using GuideStar for Grant Applications requires nonprofits to complete their GuideStar profiles, funders to accept the data as a means of populating their grant applications, and software vendors to incorporate the technology into their solutions.

After discovering that only five of our 16 current Washington, DC grantees has developed a GuideStar profile, I decided that assistance could be very useful to them. Further research showed that in Minneapolis, one out of nine of the foundation’s grantees has a GuideStar profile. The story is slightly different in Chicago, where four out of six of our grantees has a GuideStar profile. None of our grantees anywhere has a Platinum profile, and only a few have Gold.

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Seizing the Opportunity to Tell Our Story

By Jenna Wachtmann, Ball Brothers Foundation

Like many private foundations, ours has historically kept a relatively low profile. That all changed a decade ago when our board and staff embarked on a strategic planning process. It became clear through its community conversations, interviews, and research that our foundation had a real opportunity to extend our impact by improving our communications.

We recognized, our president & COO often says, that we needed to tell our own story. We had an important opportunity to make our funding priorities clearer to potential grantees, to be more visible (and ensure we would continue to be invited to sit at the table during important community discussions), and to build the strong relationships with nonprofit and community leaders centered on mutual understanding and cooperation that have been at the heart of our work since 1926.

In response, BBF has become proactive in its communications over the past decade. We created a website, began submitting regular press releases to our local newspapers, and worked with students at local Ball State University to create a series of short videos featuring our grantees and community. We’ve seized the opportunity to tell our own story.

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The Buying Season

sticky-notes-to-do-listBy Mark Larimer, Foundant Technologies

Well, it’s that season again! People are breaking out their checkbooks and making resolutions for the new year. I know it sounds like I’m talking about the holidays, but I am actually talking about the end-of-year technology purchasing season.

I have been in the technology industry for most of my career and have always been surprised by the number of new purchases made in December. We thought it may be different serving the grantmaking industry, but it isn’t. The primary reason people buy in December is a function of their organization’s budget. Typically they are spending leftover budget or dipping into next year’s funds for a purchase they have been wanting all year.

So, rather than fight the trend, let me offer some advice to help make your new year happy and keep your buyer’s remorse to a minimum.

Are you spending leftover budget?

If you find yourself in a position to use up budget at year end, here are some tips, keeping in mind that this situation often holds the most risk for both the consumer and the vendor.

  • First, don’t make impulse purchases. If you are using leftover budget for small hardware upgrades or for a solution you have had your eye on all year, great. But if the primary goal is to use up your budget by year end, you may be disappointed in the new year.
  • Second, stop thinking about the budget, and don’t let the vendor focus on it either. Never tell a vendor you are using up end-of-year budget. This will often make them focus on helping you spend your money instead of solving your business problem. Start at the beginning of the purchase process. You can do it quickly, but any discussions internally or with vendors should be based on the problem you are using this excess budget to solve, not the budget itself.
  • Third, keep in mind: Just because you have extra money doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get the best deal. Make sure prospective vendors take you seriously.

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Are You an Accidental Techie?

By Maru Willson, Exponent Philanthropy

Are you the go-to person for technology in your office, but “technology” isn’t in your job description? Then you’re an accidental techie, a common role in small offices.

computerExponent Philanthropy member Rachel Ayn Pickens, program officer at the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, became an accidental techie because she was young and had prior experience with social media.

“Everyone assumes Millennials will know what to do because we grew up with technology,” says Rachel. “Age may have something to do with finding yourself in an ‘accidental techie’ role, but it’s not everything. It has more to do with wanting to learn and being willing to teach yourself what you need to know.

Adopt this mantra early and use it often: Technology is a partner in achieving our mission. Technology can be a game changer for small organizations, helping to drive your mission further, faster. Connecting new tech to your mission is vital in gaining buy-in from stakeholders in your organization.

Think about your organization’s needs. Rely on your organization’s needs as a guide. It’ll help you avoid the trap of purchasing the latest technology just because it’s new, or because someone else insisted you should.

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Why to Support Nonprofits’ Technology Needs

Adapted with permission from Idealware’s “A Funders Guide to Supporting Nonprofit Technology.” Idealware helps nonprofits—including funders—make smart software decisions by providing thoroughly researched, impartial, and accessible resources about software.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a single type of funding that could positively affect all your grantees? There is: support for grantees’ technology needs. But few funders support technology, and many nonprofits are reluctant to directly ask for that support.

Investing in your grantees’ technology infrastructure—whether purchasing actual hardware, helping them choose software, or building technology skills—has a direct impact on their important work.

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A New Way to Connect: Live Online Chats

By Akilah Massey, Exponent Philanthropy

From in-person programs to our Directory of Foundation and Philanthropy Advisors, we’re always looking for ways to help you learn from and connect with colleagues and advisors.

We’re pleased to introduce Exponent Philanthropy Live Q&A, a new way for you to get the information you need by posing your questions to experts—live! These online chats take place on the first Thursday of each month at 1 p.m. ET.

Here’s how they work:

  • Mark your calendar. We’ll hold an Exponent Philanthropy Live Q&A on the first Thursday of each month. Save the date! 
  • Request a reminder. By going to the Exponent Philanthropy Live Q&A page before the event, you can request that a reminder be sent to your email the day before, hours before, or even a few minutes before the event starts.
  • Send in a question. You can submit a question at any point before the event starts. This will help to be sure your question is answered, or, if you have a question for our guest but can’t join that month’s event, we’ll get an answer for you. Just check back for the transcript afterward.
  • Join us live. On the day of the Live Q&A, we’ll be joined by our guest for that month. Type your questions into your chat box, tell us who you are—full names are great but initials work too—and our guests will type an answer right back. If their response prompts another question, ask that one too!
  • Read the transcript. After the Live Q&A has ended, the transcript is available on our site for anyone to read and share.

Here’s an example from May 1 Live Q&A with guest experts Mark Larimer of Foundant and Perla Ni of Great Nonprofits. We discussed ways to use data in grantmaking. Continue reading

How to Make Big Data Relevant and Useful

By Mark Larimer, Foundant Technologies

Many common themes in philanthropy today revolve around the promises of “Big Data.” Grantmakers are continually called upon to be more transparent and to share their data, but many have become cynical as past data projects failed more than a few times due to incomplete, inaccurate, or outdated data. A misunderstanding regarding how their data will be used has also contributed to the wariness many grantmakers have regarding sharing data.

We believe three critical requirements have been missing among failed data initiatives: first, a reliable and distinct benefit for those who share data, and an understanding of how it can and will be used; second, an easy way to share data; and third, data that is up-to-date and accurate.

Grants management solutions have a unique and important role to play in helping data initiatives succeed.

  • By allowing grantseeking organizations to regularly use and update their data during their normal grant cycle, inaccurate or outdated data is eliminated.

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Building a Tech Savvy Board

By Akilah Massey, Exponent Philanthropy

In my previous post, I shared why technology professionals can be a valuable addition to any organization’s board. But even without a technology expert among your ranks, there are ways to move your board toward being tech savvy.

Raise the profile of tech at your organization. Does your board realize the benefit of considering technology at the board level? Are board members missing the potential cost and time savings of smart technology decisions?

Consider a board-level tech committee. If your board is not used to talking about technology at its meetings, a technology committee can set direction and make recommendations to the larger board. A committee can also troubleshoot operational issues, research technology that may facilitate or streamline your work, and think about what technology the organization requires to run well.

Retain the expertise of a tech consultant. If your board were undergoing a strategic plan or wrestling with a thorny issue, you’d probably seek the services of an outside expert. Technology should be treated the same way. If your board needs basic tech know-how, an outside consultant can bring board members up to speed on the technology sector and answer questions.

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Are You Overlooking This Type of Professional for Your Board?

By Akilah Massey, Exponent Philanthropy

Quick. Imagine your ideal board members sitting around a table. Who is there and why?

Most of us agree that board members should be committed to the organization, and good leaders. It may be helpful to include an attorney to draft a conflict of interest statement. A CPA who serves as treasurer. But what about a technology professional?

I recently had the chance to attend the Nonprofit Technology Conference, and at the session “What’s Your Board’s IT IQ?” I was challenged to consider a professional that’s often left off the list: the information technology (IT) professional.

Presenter Leon Wilson of the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Highway T told us that just 1% of directors in for-profit corporations have a tech background. We don’t have stats on foundations or other nonprofit organizations, but we can assume they’re similar.

And there’s really no reason for this gap.

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