As a grantor or a grantee, your organization is responsible to ensure compliance with the terms and conditions of the funding that you receive. My company InfoStrat has implemented grant management systems for U.S. government agencies and non-profits for over twenty years. Here are some of the principles that we follow in order to help clients achieve compliance and accountability as efficiently as possible:
- Focus on your system of record. Having a central system that is the authoritative source of information on your grants is essential for high quality data and accurate reporting. Try to eliminate and discourage additional "side" systems such as spreadsheets and Access databases which may lead to inconsistent data or calculations.
- Respect your data. Keeping your database clean is a constant process, but is the only way to meet your compliance goals. Encourage users to take care in data entry, and create validation where possible to capture errors. Audit reports can be helpful when validation rules are not sufficient to show data anomalies.
- Make your data fit your business rules. We have learned that there is no single, universal data model or set of business rules that is appropriate for all grant programs. Funding may come with complicated conditions that govern progress payments and post-award reports. You must make your system match the compliance rules, because by the time you have received funding it is almost always too late to change the rules. For instance, in the most common data model that we encounter, an agency receives one or more funding sources for a program, and that program funds individual grants. Under a grant there may be one or more projects. This is the data model used in Grants Manager Plus. Some agencies, however, may have different data relationships, such as a project spanning multiple grants, or only a single funding source per program. With a flexible grant management system, you can model the appropriate relationships and data elements.
- Use structured data rather than documents when appropriate. Some agencies approach grant management as a document management problem. They use fillable forms for accepting applications, and create storage and search mechanisms to handle the documents. While documents and other file attachments are useful and appropriate, the problem with a document-based approach is that it makes validation and reporting quite difficult. Having grantees fill out online forms rather than submitting documents as email attachments allows you to create a stronger structure and have conditional logic to improve the quality of data. By gathering consistent data from all grants, you can build meaningful reports and make ad hoc queries when necessary. Our clients are often required to respond to information requests from government executives. Pulling reports out of a folder full of documents is much more painstaking (and not repeatable) than using a query writer in a database.
- Document your compliance rules and processes. The unique requirements of a funding source almost always translates to complex rules. You must write down these rules and diagram them in order to understand the process and automate it. The requirements documentation should spell out such details as reporting formats, scoring criteria, acceptance criteria for payment requests, reporting schedules, and all the other details of your grant business processes. Too often these rules are implicit rather than explicit, and they often end up handled informally outside the grant management system (bringing us back to item 1).