Tips for Choosing a Grants Management System: Part 1

The following article is an excerpt adapted from the research report "Benchmarking Study of Best Practices in Grant Management Software for State Arts Agencies," conducted on behalf of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in 2014.

By Sally Cao, Lauren Harrison, Graciela Kahn, Signe Lindberg, Lillian Mo, Kimmy Nguyen, Ana Vazquez-Trejo, and Ying Zhu, Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University.

Throughout the process of selecting and implementing a grants management system (GMS), an arts organization must consider many factors in order to ensure positive results. These factors fall into four main categories: vendor interviews, data migration, integration, and training. All of equal importance, these categories must be weighed to find the optimum balance of system features and vendor characteristics.

Today we focus on the first two categories—vendor interviews and data migration.

Vendor Interviews

First, make a list of system functions that are critical to the specific needs of your arts organization. Articulating these critical functions creates a tool with which to conduct software demonstrations with vendors and evaluate GMS options. This list should be made upfront, as it will help to guide the entire search process in much the same way that a job description guides the hiring process. Once these critical functions have been identified (the “must-have” list), additional features discovered during the course of GMS research may be considered—but the critical functions identified by your organization provide the framework for focused analysis and decision-making.

Examples of GMS providers that currently serve arts and culture organizations

Examples of GMS providers that currently serve arts and culture organizations

The “must-have” list can also serve as the basic meeting agenda when interviewing vendors, to ensure that GMS demonstrations provide insight on critical functions before delving into other attractive—but less important—features. Because vendors tend to follow a strict sales script, arriving with this agenda in-hand gives structure to the meeting and helps to facilitate questions. Furthermore, the research that goes into preparing the meeting agenda allows staff members to become familiar with some of the GMS and database jargon that they are likely to hear, making the process smoother and less daunting for all.

Prior to each vendor interview, mentally prepare to encounter large amounts of information. The vendor interview process should include multiple interviews with a variety of vendors, as well as several interviews each with a short list of vendors. Ideally, vendors will provide references to some of their current clients so that your organization can get the perspective of a current user. Looking online for reviews of the system can also be useful—but pay attention to the date of the review, as satisfaction levels can change significantly within a short period of time.

Data Migration

One of the major issues an arts organization needs to address when considering a transition to a new GMS is the migration of existing data. This process begins with an inventory of data currently stored by the organization. Compiling this inventory will allow your organization to formulate questions to ask potential vendors about the process and means of migrating data into their GMS.

Source: Rusted Reality

An often overlooked pitfall that many organizations fall prey to is underestimating the time, staff, and money required to effectively move historical data. Ask questions early, so as to avoid unpleasant surprises later in the process. A sample question is: “How will you (the vendor) support my organization in transferring our historic data into the new system?” The goal of this conversation is to clearly define how involved the vendor will be in the process. Follow-up questions should address how much work the vendor will handle and how much will fall to your organization’s staff. Also be sure to ask vendors how much they charge to assist with data migration.