Reimagining Grant Management

Reimagining Grant Management

December 16, 2021
27 minutes
EPISODE SUMMERY

Ansley Fender · CEO and Founder, Atlas Solutions | Ansley Fender, CEO and Founder of Atlas, a grant management platform, is here to light up your world with a future of grant management that means more money, more support, and more impact.


LISTEN
EPISODE NOTES

Why is grant management such a freaking hassle (to put it nicely)?

Well, we don't have the answer for that, but today's guest does. She also has a solution. Ansley Fender, CEO and Founder of Atlas, a grant management platform, is here to light up your various spreadsheets and applications and revenue streams and transactions and explain the uncharted chaos that separate databases is causing your programs.

It's no secret that nonprofits struggle with the grant process, but Ansley's insight gave us a lot of hope for a world with democratized grant funding. Reimagining the funding lifecycle as a two-way street means more money, more support, and more impact—and it may be a reality sooner than we think.

Tune in for the future of grant management and stick around til the end to hear some of the best nonprofit solutions we've heard for grant-loving organizations like yours.

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler, and welcome to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

Why is grant management such a freaking hassle (to put it nicely)?

Well, I don't have the answer for that, but today's guest does. She also has a solution. Ansley Fender, CEO and Founder of Atlas, a grant management platform, is here to light up your various spreadsheets and applications and revenue streams and transactions and explain the uncharted chaos that separate databases is causing your programs.

It's no secret that nonprofits struggle with the grant process, but Ansley's insight gave us a lot of hope for a world with democratized grant funding. Reimagining the funding lifecycle as a two-way street means more money, more support, and more impact—and it may be a reality sooner than we think.

Tune in for the future of grant management and stick around til the end to hear some of the best nonprofit solutions we've heard for grant-loving organizations like yours.

Let's jump in!

Justin Wheeler Welcome back, listeners! Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit today, I'm here in the studio, virtually, with Ansley.  Ansley, how are you doing?

Ansley Fender I'm good. How are you?

Justin Wheeler I am great. Thank you so much for joining the podcast today. Excited to talk about your company and just the grants fundraising world in general. Before we jump in, would you mind sharing with our listeners a little bit more about yourself, your story and why you got involved in the nonprofit sector?

Ansley Fender Yeah, for sure. So I was actually a musician for a really long time and grew up in the arts, in and around arts nonprofits. And so I just that's kind of what I knew, and I went to college for music and actually got injured my sophomore year and was looking for something to do. And literally, all I had done up to that point involved nonprofits. So my transition to a nonprofit management program. And yeah, really enjoyed it, but realized I didn't actually want to work in nonprofits. And so I started, I went to grad school for four finance and started doing financial consulting for nonprofits and loved it. But I started seeing this grant management problem coming up over and over and over and I guess just sort of decided to do something about it and ended up starting my company, Atlas Solutions, to basically build the software that I'd wish I had had with my clients.

Justin Wheeler So what were some of the challenges as a financial consultant working with nonprofits? What were some of the challenges that you saw over and over again, which led you to start your company?

Ansley Fender So the biggest one was just the money that it cost to manage a grant. And so the industry averages about 20% of grant funding going to manual admin, which is nuts, especially when you're dealing with an organization that's not funded through like sales, you know, there's no way to just increase their revenue really quickly. And so that was the biggest one. And typically, you know, it's being managed in a spreadsheet. And I started looking at, you know, like, what are businesses doing, like for-profit businesses because I was also doing some financial consulting for them as well. And they would never have dreamed of doing this stuff in a spreadsheet. And it wasn't the fault of the nonprofits, there just wasn't really anything that was addressing that need from the nonprofit perspective. So that would for sure be the biggest one, but there was also a lot of turnover. So of the organizations that did have some sort of great management solution with software, you know, they would sometimes have a new person in that seat every year, every couple of years. And so it was constant new training and it's really expensive software that's really hard to use. And so most people I was talking to were like, we use maybe 10% of the software, but we pay like $50,000 for it, which is totally not sustainable.

Justin Wheeler So I think there's something like over $4 trillion in endowed like in foundations here in the United States. And for listeners, in case you're wondering, foundations have to give away 5%, they call it payouts, on an annual basis. And so you would think that, you know, there was a more sort of efficient way to raise three foundations given the size of the market for clients that you've worked with or for customers that are today using the Atlas solutions may share a little bit about some of the efficiencies that they get back or some of the wins that they're experiencing as a result of using a vertical-specific piece of software like Atlas Solutions to address the challenges and to hopefully, you know, take more of this opportunity from foundation funding.

Ansley Fender Yeah. So the biggest one is just not having to get more grants to pay for the management of the other grants. So you end up having a grant that like when you aggregate everything, there's one grant going just to the admin course and all the other grants. And when you're a homeless shelter or, you know, a Boys and Girls club, that's crazy that, you know, all of this time and effort is going into applying for a grant and you're not even really able to do anything with it. So that's been the biggest win is just actually being able to use the grant for the program it was intended to go for.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Ansley Fender The second one is having all this information at your fingertips. So if I'm going to apply for a grant, I have to pull together tons of like program metric information from previous programs. I have to prove that I'm worthy of getting a grant. And if this information is stored across multiple spreadsheets or worse, like pen and paper or people's desktop computers like on lots of different workstations, then I have to aggregate all of this data every time I want to apply and add in all the new information. But with Atlas, you don't have to do that anymore. It's right at your fingertips. You can aggregate this information really quickly. So you just have a better overall idea of not only what your current grant-specific financial position is, but also, you know, like how much you're going to need going forward retrospectively, what actually happened with that money? So you get this like complete financial picture that is nearly impossible to get in just a spreadsheet or with competing products.

Justin Wheeler Got it. So yeah, so maybe walk me through sort of like a use case for an organization that, you know, that's raising that, let's call it hundreds of thousands of dollars a year through, you know, various grant opportunities. Where would they start with Atlas Solutions and like walk us through like the user journey from like start to finish. Grant completed, grant-funded, reporting all that stuff. Like what, maybe give us a good idea of what a user would experience through going from start to finish?

Ansley Fender Yeah, for sure. So actually, the client of mine, that is literally the reason that this exists is a homeless shelter in Bloomington, Indiana, where I live. And so for them, getting two to three million dollars of federal funding every year, basically how it started for them is they think their accounting software with Atlas, they, you know, create an account, sync their accounting software. We pull in all their financial transactions so they're not having to upload transactions or manually enter anything. Everything come straight in. And then, on sort of the back end of the system, they're setting up their different funding sources. So what are these grants? Who gave them to them? What is the source of funds is a federal, state local foundation. Lots of details that you know people are always trying to reference, but it's set up right at the beginning. And then they set up the budget for the grant. So if it's contractually obligated or if it's self-imposed, they set that up. And then as transactions are updated, they're tagging each of those transactions with the corresponding funding source and budget line item. So in real time, everything is being updated. They know day to day how they're doing against their budget, how they're doing overall. Since most federal grants are paid as reimbursements, it's really important to know how much you've spent versus how much is actually come in because you can end up running in the red really quickly if you're not keeping an eye on that. So that's another really important use case, especially for federally funded nonprofits. And then as they're going and they're tracking, you know, really important performance metrics like how many people are using the homeless shelter during COVID, you know, how many new COVID positive people are coming into their COVID relief shelter? How many meals are they serving? All that information can be stored inside Atlas. So when it's time to report either you know, those monthly reporting schedules or at the end of the grant, they have all of that information and can run a report and export all of that into a spreadsheet or into a PDF and literally just send that off to who they need to report to.

Justin Wheeler Got it! OK, so has that reporting mechanism for maybe organizations you don't have, like an established foundation channel for fundraising? Does Atlas help, sort of not necessarily the solicitation side, but connect the right type of opportunities that make sense to the organization? Maybe talk a little bit about the like if and what the solicitation sort of process looks like within the software?

Ansley Fender Yeah, for sure. So right now, we're really more on the tracking and reporting side, but we are actually, we have in development and are testing a procurement side feature that uses artificial intelligence. And so basically what we do is organizations fill out a profile about who they are. Demographic information, program information, I mean, like you can write a book about what it is that you do. And then we actually pull data from grant different databases all over the internet, and we take those forms and mash them up with the information in these databases. And so, you know, like, it's super common for someone to spend an hour like, oh my god, this grant we qualify for, this is great. They start reading the RFP and on the bottom of Page 19, there's a clause that's like, OK, great, now we don't qualify, and I've just burned an hour on this. And so thanks to artificial intelligence, we can actually read those RFPs really, really quickly and use that sort of nuance in the descriptions about the programs and really increase the matching capability. And then basically, we return a statistical probability that they qualify for that grant. And then they can decide, do I want to go, you know, look at this grant further. If I have an 80% likelihood of qualifying for this and based on the information and atlas, I only get 20% of the federal grants I apply for, you know, like what's that sort of mental cost-benefit analysis there of actually taking the time to look through this?

Justin Wheeler Yeah, makes a lot of sense. I mean, there's so much time wasted on from nonprofits that are applying to grants that they never have a chance at even, you know, receiving and so to use AI to better match organizations with foundations. Do you see, do you see an opportunity eventually? So, aside from like the data that you're getting from these databases, public databases, like partnering with foundations to maybe provide a more white-glove experience of creating a marketplace, essentially to help. Align foundations with nonprofits and vice versa, is that part of the product roadmap or is it more going to be focused on sort of the AI component of matching charities with potential grantmakers?

Ansley Fender Yeah, that's a great question. So on the procurement side, absolutely. And what we're really trying to do is, you know, like a lot of grants go to organizations with clout and it takes a long time to build clout. And so, you know, there are all these really great smaller nonprofits that just aren't able to get their name out there. And so one of the things we're working on doing is exactly what you just said. It's basically creating a marketplace where as a funder, I could go in and say, OK, I'm looking for organizations that help, that have a needle exchange program and Colorado in these zip codes, and I could find those exact organizations and find out what they're looking for in terms of funding, what funding they've gotten before. And if I am that needle exchange program, I can also look for funders that have funded those types of things in my area. So absolutely, that's the direction we're heading with that. On the tracking and reporting side. So one of the things that really distinguishes Atlas from everyone else is that we bring funders and funding recipients together in a single platform. So funders can use Atlas the same way funding recipients can. And so the way that ends up working out is if I'm a foundation and I give money to, you know, 20 organizations in my area and I have an Atlas account as I'm entering those grants in the system, they become live on the recipient's side. And so there's not like they're dealing with the same information. Why do both of them have to enter it? So it actually just updates on the funding recipient side and they can communicate back and forth. And so where we're wanting to go with that is automating this as much as possible. So instead of me having to report to a community foundation, they can already see how I'm doing against my budget because they can, I can just push that information to their side of Atlas. So really, trying to look for ways to circumvent all of this, this paperwork and all of this time-consuming stuff that is taking away from serving the people that they're supposed to be serving?

Justin Wheeler Yeah, makes total sense. So at what stage would you say it makes sense for organizations to start investing in software like Atlas? Is it if you have zero dollars raised from foundations, but you're looking to get into the ground world, does it make sense? Should you be more established? What sort of like the ideal profile, from your perspective, it makes sense to really start investing in the tech behind grant fundraising?

Ansley Fender I mean, I'm a little bit biased, as soon as possible, you know, but we actually do have some ways to like plan funding going forward. So we have had some customers that were like, we're just planning for funding. We haven't applied for anything yet. Great. Like get in at the very beginning, the metrics that are populated by the system are going to be better the longer you have information in them, so the earlier, the better. There is not really, like we've tried to make it so that like pricing wise, it's not like you have to be a multi-million dollar organization to be able to afford it. So tiered pricing so that if you're at the very beginning stages of, hey, we're looking for grants, we're not really sure we're going with this. It is still affordable if you're churning out $4 million a year and in grants, we can accommodate that as well.

Justin Wheeler Got it. From your experience working with nonprofits and building a company around grants, what are some of the best ways or approaches organizations can take to really build out this channel for it to be a meaningful piece of the revenue? What are some like best practices or tips you can share with organizations looking to build out this program?

Ansley Fender Yeah, so a lot of organizations just throw a bunch of applications out there and sort of see what sticks. And that is a method, but it's very, very time consuming and can be really expensive, especially if you're churning out a bunch of like federal applications that take a really long time to prepare. So my first piece of advice is be really strategic, like know what your conversion rate is if you have yet to convert a federal grant. Definitely apply, but don't put as much in that. If you get all the community foundation grants you apply for. Keep doing it and it might be smaller amounts, but you know you're going to get it. So it just really sort of learning where you're at versus, you know, like how quickly you can turn out these applications and how quickly they convert. The second is find strategic partners. So if your city is doing a program that you can attach your name to, that city is going to be far more likely to get state and federal funding, especially because of all of the COVID relief funding. If you can somehow do something COVID-related or public health-related, there is so much money out there for you, literally billions. And part of that is that community economic development is having a heyday and will continue to have a heyday for the foreseeable future. So if you can prove your usefulness to your community, either to your local government or state government, that's the way to guarantee that you have staying power.

Justin Wheeler Got it. And so one of the things you mentioned around sort of like organizations with more clout typically get funding, at least from like the more like, you know, reputable foundations and so forth. One of the things I've also noticed. I spent about 12 years as a fundraiser before starting my business, Funraise was the sort of the diversity in funding was also something that was an attractive, attractive data point for grant investors in the sense of like they didn't want to make up a large percentage of your total budget. And so when they would see a diversified sort of revenue streams across the board, that's when we started to see better success on the grant side of things. And so, you know, one thing I thought I'd add sort of here for our listeners is it could be and it again, it really depends on your cause, on your mission, you know, as you stated. Like, it could be easier to start like an individual fundraising program giving program to build up some momentum so that when you go to grants, you have more data to back up sort of, you know, your organization and the legitimacy of what you can accomplish. You know, to show those results on the grants, I wanted one of the things that I hear a lot of nonprofits kind of complain about is sort of the amount of work that goes into administering the grant once it's been funded, right.

Ansley Fender For sure.

Justin Wheeler So specifically, like the reporting and the requirements just kind of changing and being different across the board. If you're getting funded from 10 different foundations, you may have 10 different processes that you have to run to, you know, to report back to these foundations. And so this is where I imagine you saw a lot of cost being eaten up by grants was in essence. So how do you solve that problem and how can organizations get better at ideally, or foundations for that matter, streamlining the actual reporting element because that seems to be the biggest time suck. In my experience, fundraising with from foundations, for sure.

Ansley Fender So in the short term, our higher-level subscription tiers include some custom reports. So if it's like we need this specific information for X Y Z Foundation, we can build that report for them. It's included in their subscription from a long-term perspective, one of the things that I've tried to be really careful about is questioning every single part of the grant process. It's antiquated at best, and so is everything that's involved in it, like should it be? And so one of the things we've looked at is things like college application processes and things like that. If every single college had a totally different application process, people would not apply for more than a handful of schools. So something like a common app is what really helped that out. Is there a way to do a nonprofit common app, at least for foundations or something like that? You know, how what information do they care about? And so that's another thing that we're trying to do is what like as we start getting more and more funders on to Atlas, what are people actually asking for? What do they care about? What actually matters in terms of efficiency of funds and programing? And as we start to hone in on what those factors are, can we build an application around those things and actually fully automate that process? So think like LinkedIn, if I want to apply for a job, all my information is already on LinkedIn. I can just click apply. What if we could do that for grant applications? All the information's Atlas you see the grant the Atlas sent you that you want to apply for. Click Apply. Boom, the application happened. So I mean, that obviously is not a tomorrow thing, but you know, several years down the road that's where we're trying to head. Because, I mean, like you said, there's like $4 trillion of foundation money out there. There's like aside there, there's like $3 trillion dollars given out every year to every sector. That's a lot of money that people are spending time trying to compete for when in reality, clicking a button should get it done very, very quickly and make sure that this money is going to who it should go to.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, that's interesting, common app, I mean, there's definitely a lot of like efficiency wins there, and it'd be interesting to see like entities come together and to agree on that. The other question kind of pertains to sort of just the inefficiencies in grant fundraising today, but also like there's this notion of trying to also democratize grant-giving. How to make it a more fair process. Any like, do you have any thoughts from your experience in working with foundations across sectors on some of the best ways that that can be better democratized, decentralized so that, for example, like community foundations, they're not, you know, making decisions in the boardroom but actually making decisions at the ground level where the real work is happening. Any sort of thoughts or commentary that you have around that conversation that's happening in the space today.

Ansley Fender Yeah, I think there are a couple of things I think one and I think this is universal, like for anyone applying for anything, get rid of identifying information. The name of the organization, the size of it, its previous track record of getting grants is not necessarily indicative of success. There are plenty of other metrics that are better predictors of successful use of funds. So you might have to go figure out what those are based on, you know, what your portfolio is, but I think there are other ways to look at that. And I think one of the ways is a static report doesn't really tell you what happened with the funding. Ask for videos, photos, news articles, interviews, testimonials. Talk to the people that actually experience the programs that came out of this funding, because at the end of the day, that's who you're supposed to be helping. Not the bookkeeper that put together this report. And so I think the system is sort of set up, I don't want to say to fail, but to not maximize the success of grant-funded nonprofits. So I think the whole thing sort of needs to be turned on its head. What do you really care about? Do you want to see efficiencies and successful deployment of programs? Then find a way to ask for information that proves that that happened.

Justin Wheeler The other thing, too, that I'd like to offer up for nonprofits, you know, the thing that I stayed away from when I was fundraising, specifically foundations who had a mandate to fund once and essentially require you to find other funding. I think that those aren't great partners for organizations. To your point, you spent a lot of time building that relationship, investing in the application and yeah you get funded, but then year two comes around and you've got a big hole in your budget. And if you're trying to grow, not only do you have to make up for that, that voice b also didn't have to find two or three other sort of foundations help make up for it. And so one of the things is as organizations are looking to really build out this program, find partners that will commit multiyear because again, as a nonprofit, the problems that you're solving, they're not solved in a year, they're not solved overnight. And so you need partners that will be with you in the long run, and not every foundation takes that sort of approach. And so I think that's another important aspect in building out this program is to find those multiyear commitments which will make your lives specifically in this area a lot, a lot easier. Ansly, anything else that you'd like to share as we kind of wrap up here? I really appreciate you coming on to talk a little bit more about Atlas. Anything else you'd like to share with nonprofits as they kind of gear up for end-of-year fundraising and plan for 2022? Anything that you'd like to share, as we close here?

Ansley Fender Yeah, I think COVID really highlighted that nonprofits have to be able to pivot really quickly. So I think going through the process of, you know, if you didn't have a building, what would you do? If you didn't, you know, if you couldn't work in person, what would you do? Like just starting to question all the things that nonprofits have sort of taken as a given, and really thinking about if everything in your organization were to have to change, what would you do? And some of that they've already had to do over the past year and a half. But I think getting in that mindset of constantly changing based on demand is really, really important for nonprofits to have that long-term sustainability.

Justin Wheeler That's yeah, totally... 2021 will not be the first year that organizations have to pivot. It's, you know, to be a growing adaptive nonprofit, this will be, I think, a part of an organization's culture, just to not only survive but really thrive, in a changing sort of economy and the way people interact with nonprofits and so forth. So definitely agree with that insight there. Well, Ansley, thank you so much for the time today. Well, definitely ensure, and it's sort of the notes under the podcast we'll link out to to the information you shared about Atlas. For organizations looking for grant-making software to better manage the process and to report back, please check out Atlas Solutions and we look forward to watching your company grow and finding lots of success.

Ansley Fender Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Justin Wheeler Thank you. Have a good one!

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