A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

The Challenges Grantmakers Face in Supporting Technology

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. 

  • Organizations often apply for less money than they need even when we specifically invite them to apply for more. Maybe site visits could help us better understand their tech needs and give them confidence to submit a strong application. But that takes time and expertise, so maybe we could partner with nonprofit technology organizations to conduct assessments. (Note: this is great as long as grantees can trust that they won’t be penalized for problems discovered in an assessment.)
  • Most foundation staff aren’t experts in technology and we need access to that expertise in grant decisions. What about inviting a tech person to be part of a review committee?
  • Rules that limit admin expenses to a certain percentage or put a cap on technology amounts might need to be loosened up. Annual grant cycles can also get in the way because applicants know they only get one shot per year and they don’t want to waste it on a request for tech funding that might get rejected or might be smaller. They also don’t have the opportunity to request funding for urgent things that crop up during the year; they have to wait for the annual cycle in order to start benefiting from a tech investment.
  • It’s a challenge to persuade our board to fund technology instead of programs. They don’t connect the dots to see how program success is dependent on technology.
  • We should add a question about technology to our standard grant application. (Note: it should also be a line item in any budget templates you provide.)
  • We need to learn to be more proactive and spot tech challenges further upstream, before a project starts. We need some guidelines on what to look for. (Note: Some basic questions to ask about common technology requests are included in the slides below.)
  • Let’s have real, honest communication with grantees. Let’s not be afraid to listen to their ideas about how technology can help them or how it could be disruptive to the way they operate.
  • Grants managers have an opportunity to be a trusted confidante. Grantees might be more frank about their technology struggles and needs with a grants manager compared to a program officer.

Our nonprofit readers should find it encouraging that foundations are increasingly concerned about this issue and examining their practices to find out how they can be more supportive of technology needs. Let’s keep working together—nonprofits, capacity builders, and funders—to treat technology as the strategic priority it needs to be.

Here are the slides from my presentation: Spot Missing Tech_GMN2017. I’d love to hear about your experiences working with funders or grantees. Tell me about them in the comments!

Related: A Funders Guide to Supporting Nonprofit Technology (Idealware)

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