People we met
We met a total of 11 participants over 6 in-depth conversations and 1 co-design feedback session. They were from different parts of the ecosystem – grant makers, grant applicants, VWOs, public officers, and incubators. Meeting experienced grant applicants allowed us to dive deep into their real needs and pain-points with the current grant-making ecosystem. As the grant team was new to grant-making, we found it super educational too to speak to grant-makers who had administered and closed grants before. We learned vital success factors from them and also blind spots to watch out for as grant-makers. On agreement of confidentiality, their faces are not shown and names are changed.
Insights & findings
Insights are interpretations of what we learned from our interviews and observations. Insights reveal something non-obvious, surprising or valuable for our project. Making sense of what we learned from our conversations, we ended up with 8 insights and opportunities:
Insight 01 / Grant intent
Managing innovation is counter-intuitive: what we do and what we want to achieve might sometimes conflict, if we are not mindful.
It’s easy to lose sight of what really matters when it comes to grant-making. We learned from ex-grant manager Lionel’s (not his real name) experience running technology grants in the public service, to ask the all-important question “Are we driving utilization of the grant, or driving innovation in the sector?” Managing the day-to-day operations of the grant can become about numbers-chasing for outreach, utilization and KPIs, and this might dilute or even conflict with the larger mission of the grant of spurring innovation to better serve needs. Metrics for innovation can be counter-intuitive from the usual metrics for grant management, e.g. having a 90% success rate for proposals submitted to panel for approval might sound good for the grant team, but that might also mean that we’re not pushing innovation enough by self-censoring and floating up only ‘safe’ proposals. Another counter-intuitive point: getting a good number of good projects to be funded under the grant might be important to track in the short-term, but for impact and sustainability in the long term, it is perhaps better to develop an ecosystem of investors and projects that sustains and replicates itself and weans off grant money eventually. All these would not be achieved if grant managers were focused only on hitting numbers.
How might the grant management team continually stay on track of the grant’s vision and at same time, stay relevant with changes in the sector and needs of our stakeholders?
Insight 02 / Collaboration
Interactions are mostly ‘vertical’ and confined between a grant maker and applicant. Seeding lateral connections might then seed more cross-collaborations.
Our experience as mystery shoppers for grants was a confusing one, jumping to and fro websites trying to compare grants. There’s currently no easy way for grant applicants to ‘shop’ for grants and compare them side by side, and it’s even more frustrating considering how huge and diverse the grant landscape is. This inefficiency is then transferred to grant makers collectively, since applicants have to ask around each grant to make sure. Hence there are opportunities for grant makers to collaborate on information and referral, but extending beyond, perhaps during application and reporting as well. Ying (not her real name), an ex-grant manager, mentioned how grant uptake can be enhanced by working with a selective network of funders who refer applicants to you if the proposals are not eligible for their own grants. For VWOs, collaborations are more likely between two organizations when they are not serving the same clients. If they have the same target clients but have different expertise on different parts of the value chain (e.g. a counselling service and a research organization whom both have caregivers as their target clients), working together is possible too.
How might we get grant makers to work together on information and referrals, and beyond? How might we create more opportunities for connections in the grant process, not just between VWOs, but also with social enterprises, research institutes and institutes of higher learning?
Insight 03 / Communications
Jargon may help us cover all our bases for accountability, but it can lead to downstream inefficiencies from queries due to confusion and frustration.
Using technical terms such as “capital funding” or “recurrent funding’ helps us share information that is accurate and transparent to all. But sometimes this leads to downstream inefficiencies in the form of queries, as applicants might not be familiar with such terms, even the ones who had applied before, because applications are not typically their core work and they only come across these terms during application. The whole step-by-step process of the grant application is often not clear, and how information is laid out and presented visually are often inconsistent across different grants, leading to even more confusion. Details are often shared from the agency’s point of view – knowing the date your panel meets is less helpful than knowing when they can expect an answer on their grant application. Evaluation criteria of proposals are not always transparent – this can leads to applicants just trying their luck sending in proposals (and therefore the grant manager has more poor proposals to go through). Last but not least, the tone of the writing is often a signal for the relationship you want to have with the applicant – is the usual top-down, authoritative tone the best way forward?
How might we communicate information about the grant in a way that even someone new to grants is receptive and understand?
Insight 04 / Differentiated diagnostics
Assessing and supporting a project needs to be appropriate to its growth phase. A one-size-fits-all approach might be counter-productive instead.
Ying shared that “In grants, there’s a continuum. There’s this grant model that shows different stages of growth of a non-profit organization, and what type of funds will help them… It depends on where your grant sits, and what’s the aim you’re trying to achieve.” When we identify the stage of life cycle of the particular organization with their idea, we are in a better position to design diagnostic tools and grant support/resources to intervene. This informs the entire grant process – how we fund; how many layers of approval we need; how much to expect from projection figures; what are the reporting commitments; whether we measure outputs or outcomes; the different criteria the Panel evaluates each proposal by. Being able to diagnose the growth phase also informs how we support the organization during implementation. Supporting and enabling them to take steps to be successful within each phase, is key to ensuring long-term sustainability of the project, and thus also the overall impact of the grant.
How might we better assess the different profiles of applicants and their needs, context, challenges so that the support and money from the grant is more targeted?
Insight 05 / Relationships
The best grants in people’s minds are usually likened to marriages. Instead of heavy-handed transactions or pay-for-service, think mutually supportive partnerships
A VWO partner Kay shared very starkly that “There’s also this attitude [that funders have], that “I’m always right. You’re receiving funds. I issue you KPIs and you just do it.” I don’t agree to that. I know my programme better and so let’s set the KPIs together. Of course I will not go for a low and easy-to-achieve KPI, because I do want to make my programmes more robust. This is something we have to be really careful.” Both grant makers and grantees we spoke to preferred having a more equal and mutually supportive working relationship. A ‘master-slave’, heavy-handed approach that centres around money and numbers was frowned upon, although this was still the dominant way of working. Ying emphasizes that “If you view grantees as partners, you will do things differently…” It’s a little bit like a marriage, like how Alicia speaks affectionately of her positive relationships working with corporate partners as a VWO: “It’s a lot of effort, a lot of give and take. We go in and support them. We want to show them that they have been supportive of us so we support them too. It’s a relationship.” How does a mutual relationship look like? Advice was plenty: be less critical but more constructive; “friends” or “partners” instead of “applicants”; involve VWOs in setting KPIs; pitch together to the Panel. Without a doubt, there’s a hunger for a different kind of relationship that we are well placed to introduce as a new grant in the sector.
How might we grow relationships with grant applicants that are equal and mutually supportive like a partnership?
Insight 06 / Capability
The job title “grant manager” is a misnomer. The skill base need to make a grant successful goes beyond mere money management.
Diverse skill sets and capabilities are needed beyond project management, if we want the projects to succeed. The grant manager has to play multiple roles beyond simply managing the numbers. Having industry contacts and access to domain knowledge of the projects is important. Being able to network is an asset too, so as to create connections and foster collaboration.
“I really saw myself as a “grant manager” then. But if you think about the job title, it’s of course set up to fail. I’m managing the grant, not managing innovation. If I’m an innovation manager, I would manage the process, not just the money.” ~ Lionel
As the team thought through their roles, one thing emerges very clearly: there’s no way for any grant manager to possibly have enough knowledge or contacts for every possible project proposal that comes along. There needs to be ways to bring in diverse skillsets, in order to have sufficient depth (in specific fields or domain knowledge such as software development) and breadth (more general skills that are applicable across organizations such as impact measurement, leadership).
How might we bring in diverse skill sets and expert knowledge needed in enabling grantees through the whole grant cycle?
Insight 07 / Process pain-points and time lag
An onerous grant process too focused on accountability affects the success and relevance of the grant in ways we may not see.
Often, it is the bigger and better organizations who might choose not apply if the grant process is too onerous and micro-managed, as they can tap on their own donor sources and are less desperate for projects. Making the process as easy and straightforward as it can – without compromising accountability – is therefore also in the best interests of achieving the strategic outcomes of the grant by attracting the most promising candidates and best ideas, in order to get more impact for the same amount of money put out.
“When it comes to grant calls, we have now become choosy in terms of the process. I want to see how efficiently the funders are going to manage us. If it’s a $3mill project, we can always have one dedicated staff to manage funders. It’s not worth having 3 or 4 people managing a small amount of funding, like $100,000. I can say this because we got volume now. If I don’t, I’ll probably be desperate and do as the funder pleases.” ~ Kay, VWO partner
Besides process burden, there’s also room to improve the experience by reducing time lag (and thus anxiety from waiting) between actions/stages. The grant process is often a linear, hierarchical step-by-step process, of which at various points there are opportunities for running things concurrently to ease waiting anxiety. For instance, instead of waiting a week more for the offer letter to be hand-signed and delivered, perhaps the news can be shared over email first while the mail is on the way.
How might we introduce feedback mechanisms to help us co-iterate the accountability process with partners? How might we make waiting time productive and engaging? What if applicants just have to ‘do it once’ with regards to providing info and reporting?
Insight 08 / Conflicting messages and roles
We tell partners to be bold and innovative in their proposals, but later on we say “don’t fail”. The roles of enabler versus regulator are conflicting and confusing.
Innovating always comes with risk. But with public/donor funds always comes the procurement mindset and a need to demonstrate transparency, fairness and value-for-money. This usually means a low appetite for risk, and a correspondingly high need for control, especially if the project looks like its not meeting outcomes! However, Ying highlights how KPIs don’t tell the full story – sometimes the project must be given time to generate results. VWO partners typically want to ensure quality and integrity of service delivery but a grant manager’s anxiety over public accountability, failure and KPI micromanaging might cause frustration and drive the wrong sorts of behaviour that compromises service integrity. Are there ways to create a process, where so long as accountability is in place and due diligence done, failing can be rationalised?
How might we create a process for accounting for failure where due diligence had been done? How does other public service agencies account for investment losses? How might we make reporting/evaluation more meaningful and useful for partners?