Tips for Choosing a Grants Management System: Part 2

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 last two categories—integration and training. To read the first part of this two-part series, click here.

Integration

When building your organization’s “must-have” list, assess with what other systems the new GMS will  need to be integrated (e.g. accounting). GMS offerings differ greatly on their integration abilities (with some systems offering no integration at all); articulating your arts organization’s system integration requirements will likely disqualify some GMS options right away.

Notably, many GMS offerings may be able to successfully integrate with other software yet the integration often comes at an additional cost—one that may not be mentioned upfront. Knowing the cost of system integration, or at least a realistic estimate, can help your organization to assess the accurate budgetary requirement of a system implementation. The same holds true for estimating time requirements. Since system integration often needs to be customized within a given GMS, this step can often take longer than originally planned. These parameters—both time and money—should be discussed clearly with vendors to reduce the length of your organization’s transition to its new GMS.

Training

The final category to consider when selecting and implementing a grants management system is training. Training encompasses both that provided by the vendor at the time of implementation and ongoing assistance included with the system’s license fees. During the initial training period, all staff members that will interact with the new system at any point should attend a comprehensive training session. By the end of this session, staff members should be able to answer general questions about any part of the system, not just the ones that they will work with most frequently. Providing broad, comprehensive training heads off loss of knowledge due to employee turnover and enables every staff member to answer applicant or panelist questions as they arise.

  Example of a GMS user interface. Source:  Good Done Great

Example of a GMS user interface. Source: Good Done Great

Staff should also have customized training sessions that focus on their daily tasks. For example, program officers will access the applicant portal and application pages more often than the staff member that coordinates reporting to external stakeholders. By the end of the initial training period, each staff members should essentially be an expert in their specific areas of the system, so that they can manage their daily tasks easily and efficiently, without having to consult external sources. In addition, an organization should work with its vendor to develop system manuals that can serve as comprehensive resources for staff on a daily basis. These manuals can be made available in a more limited format to applicants, organized as FAQs, and can eliminate many applicant questions during the submission process.

Finally, arts organizations need to take into account the ongoing costs of continued GMS training and support. While some vendors include these costs as part of an annual fee, some may charge extra for assistance in excess of a limited number of service hours. These service costs can very quickly increase the total expense of a new GMS, sometimes to a prohibitive level, and are often left out of budget projections.

In summary, arts organizations need to do a great deal of preparation prior to their first contact with potential GMS vendors. By clearly articulating your organization’s needs and using them to shape basic meeting agendas, you will be well equipped to conduct consistent and coherent vendor interviews. This planning helps to ensure that all questions are answered early in the process, and that few, if any, hidden costs or surprises are encountered after the contract is signed—including those for system integration and training. Following these recommendations will enable an arts organization to select the GMS that best fits its needs, and one that will prove to be a valuable long-term investment for the organization.