The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Excel to Manage Grants

Most nonprofits rely on grant funding to support their programs and services. In fact, 41% report that grants make up over a quarter of their funding.

Given how critical grants are for many nonprofits, having good systems in place to manage the grantwriting process from end-to-end. Yet 75% of nonprofits use simple spreadsheets to manage what can amount to millions of dollars of grant funds.

Dahna Goldstein Dahna Goldstein

While some nonprofits may think that the systems they’ve pieced together are working well enough, there is a significant cost to inefficient grants management. The Center for Effective Philanthropy determined that 13% of every foundation grant dollar is spent administering the grant. Of that 13%, 11.5% is spent by the nonprofit. So for every $100,000 in grant funding, $11,500 is spent administering the grant. Imagine if that money could be spent on other fundraising efforts, or directed towards program or service delivery. That’s where an online system to streamline the grants management process comes in.

Here are five reasons that friends should not let friends use Excel to manage grants:

  • Excel can’t manage the whole grantseeking process. While a spreadsheet can be set up to track contacts, requirements, dates, amounts, etc., tracking is only part of the grantwriting and grantseeking process. The whole grant lifecycle involves researching and finding new grant opportunities, cultivating relationships with potential funders, writing compelling grant proposals to targeted grantmakers, tracking the details of the grants, reporting to funders at specified time intervals, and more. Spreadsheets are simply not designed to manage that whole process. Most nonprofits that use Excel to manage their grants also use Word (or another Word processor) and Outlook (or Google Calendar) as well, making it necessary to check and update three separate tools, leaving a lot of room for error. With an online system specifically designed to manage the whole grant lifecycle, everything from the initial research to the final progress report can be managed in one centralized location.
  • Deadlines and reminders. Have you ever missed a proposal deadline? What about a progress report deadline? While Excel can be used to track deadlines (Excel handles dates quite well), that information is only useful if you happen to look at the spreadsheet and sort or search for deadlines to see which due dates are upcoming. Many nonprofits will track deadlines in their grants spreadsheet, then copy those deadlines to Outlook or Google Calendar as well. Not only does that double the effort involved in managing deadlines, it also doesn’t take advantage of a straightforward feature in an online grants management system – reminders. In PhilanTrack, once a proposal or progress report deadline has been added to the system, it is added to your organization’s calendar (which can be synced with your calendaring software). In addition, the system will send automatic email reminders prior to due dates to help ensure you never miss another deadline.
  • Contact management. There’s more to managing funder contacts than just tracking contact information. While the contact information is clearly important, tracking interactions is also important. If you have a conversation with a funder about a grant program or proposal, where are those notes stored in Excel? Do you add a column each time you interact with a funder to be able to keep notes separate? What if you have 10 interactions with one funder and only two with another? How easy is it to find the relevant notes quickly? And how many extra columns end up getting added to the spreadsheet? And how do you share this information with other people in your organization so that efforts are not duplicated and not lost when someone leaves the organization?
  • The bigger the grantseeking program, the more unmanageable the spreadsheet. This is related to the previous point. The more grants your organization pursues and gets, the bigger and more unwieldy the spreadsheet becomes. I’ve seen grant spreadsheets that are color coded, split into multiple different sheets, organized with acronyms, and a number of other creative (and unsustainable) ways to manage growing grant programs. The dilemma is that organizations want their grant programs to grow. But as the program grows, the spreadsheet becomes increasingly unmanageable – and it’s at precisely that point that you need to be able to have quick and easy access to the exact information that you need at a given moment. That’s where online grants management software comes in. With PhilanTrack, you can easily sort proposals, grants, etc. to get to exactly the information you need, when you need it, without sacrificing the depth or completeness of information about each funder, grant, and proposal in the system. PhilanTrack makes it easy to store all grant-related information in one place, and navigate right to the information you need, from anywhere, at any time.
  • Continuity and institutional memory. Some people are Excel wizards. They can create spreadsheets that do things that seem impossible. They know all the shortcuts and can massage data in whatever way they want, whenever they want to. If you have one of those folks on staff, that’s great for getting a robust tracking spreadsheet set up. But what happens if that individual leaves the organization? Will anyone else know how to find relevant information and keep the complex spreadsheet updated? With an online grants management system, the organization’s complete grantseeking history is stored in an organized, easy-to-access and easy-to-use online location. If the development director leaves, her successor can easily pick up the mantle and see the whole history, which reports are due when, and what information was submitted in each proposal. And all of that information is available at a couple of button clicks rather than by pouring through tons of documents and files, linked through a complex spreadsheet.

PhilanTrack is specifically designed to manage the grantseeking process from end-to-end. In addition to all of the features mentioned above, it also has a unique grantwriting feature: how many times have you been writing a proposal and thought, “I wrote a great response to a question like that for another funder. I think it was sometime last year. Now where is that proposal?” PhilanTrack provides the ability for grantseekers to easily reuse information from past proposals at a couple of button clicks, saving the time and aggravation of having to find the Word document somewhere on your organization’s hard drive where that perfectly-phrased response resides.

GuideStar Exchange Silver and Gold participants can now receive discounted PhilanTrack access.

To see how PhilanTrack can save you from using Excel to manage your grants, contact us for a demonstration.

(Hat tip to Robert Weiner for the title.)

The preceding is a guest post by Dahna Goldstein, Founder of PhilanTech, provider of the PhilanTrack online grants management system, a web-based platform that helps social sector organizations manage grant information more efficiently for greater social impact. She serves on the board of and was named one of BusinessWeek’s 25 Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice