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With state and local entities having to track extraordinary numbers of grants, thanks to unprecedented amounts of pandemic-related federal funding, the search for software that can simplify grants management is on.
At the end of last year, Aurora, Illinois, issued a request for proposals for a cloud-based software solution that would help the city administer incoming and outgoing grants.
“With all the funding that’s coming down from the federal government with regards to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we want to be able to apply for those grants in a very standardized and expedient approach,” said Michael Pegues, Aurora’s chief information officer, referring to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure funding bill passed in 2021. “Without some type of tool to help us do that, we’re just kind of spinning our wheels.”
The city’s Community Services Department first acquired a digital solution to process outbound grants at the end of 2019, but it did not use a tool for managing the applications, tracking and reporting for inbound grants, or those the city or its departments were applying for.
Aurora is not alone in looking for a more efficient grants management process. With state and local entities having to track extraordinary numbers of grants, thanks to unprecedented amounts of pandemic-related federal funding, the search for software that can simplify grants management is on, said Tip Tucker Kendall, executive director of the National Grants Management Association.
One of the most common questions Tucker Kendall said she gets is about helpful software or technology partners. “In our message board, people are saying, ‘Oh, who do you use?’ It does feel like there is a hunt for new solutions,” she said.
It’s not surprising, she added, because technology is a critical piece of helping agencies manage the many aspects of grants management: applications, reviews, renewals, funds, reporting, compliance.
“If you have a grant that has 10 sub-recipients, you’re constantly managing them for compliance, making sure they’re using the monies correctly, making sure that they’re moving forward in their programmatic goals, and technology allows you to do that in a much simpler way,” Tucker Kendall said. “The more money you have and the more grants you have, the more agencies you have that are asking for different things. You need a software that can really manage all the pieces.”
The pandemic-era and post-pandemic funding have only complicated matters because many local agencies are getting infrastructure money, for instance, for the first time, and employees have never managed grants of this nature before.
“This is definitely going to be one of the struggles as we move through these next few years,” Tucker Kendall said. Agencies should look for a solution “that will allow those folks to easily report up the ladder on their grant process,” she said.
Another challenge is that technology and government rules around grants change frequently, so it’s important that the technologies state and local governments put in place now are flexible to scale and adapt.
The first step agencies must take in planning for grants management is to fully understand their needs, Tucker Kendall said. The second step is to find the right partner to help agencies meet those requirements. Some solutions focus on grant-makers or reporting, and then there are places like Aurora that want technology that can do everything.
In addition to being bidirectional, Aurora wants a solution that provides straightforward reporting on data that can save report rules and types so that the work doesn’t have to be repeated each time. Currently, users create customized reports each time they want to export information – “a time-consuming process …[that] provides more complexity than necessary for the typical needed report,” according to the RFP.
Because users may go months without using the software due to the grant cycle, the city also wants a user-friendly interface that will not require retraining each time staff members need to use it.
In the RFP, the city also called for improved notifications. “The current system provides selective notification that can impede department operations,” it states, citing this example: Sometimes the team needs to get notifications that require an action item, but the applicant incorrectly completed a field on the application and the notification wasn’t sent. “The ideal solution, for example, would provide a ‘Confirmation Email’ button to instantly notify applicants that their applications have been received, eliminating some manual work.”
Even streamlined printing is a need in Aurora because sometimes the current system prints only the information on the screen, not the full document or dataset.
At this time, the Community Services Department is the only user of the tool, but as other agencies apply for grants and grant-funded projects, there will be an opportunity for expanded use of the new software.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.
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