Using Digital Platforms in the Design and Delivery of Grant Programmes:
A snapshot of best practice in aid, humanitarian and stabilisation settings
Purpose of this note
This note sets out emerging best practice and debate in the set up and delivery of grant programmes to deliver aid/humanitarian, reconstruction and stabilisation programming. The note provides an overview of the issues and a series of questions for leaders to ask those within their teams who deliver, design or bid for grant programmes.
A massive expansion of grant programming in last 5 years
The last 10 years have seen a massive expansion in the use of grant programmes to deliver aid. An expansion driven by the big philanthropic funds, BINGOs and multilateral/bilateral donors seeking vehicles for delivering aid that can drive localisation and at the same time reduce transaction costs, offer value for money and track impacts and outcomes.
Digital delivery and drivers of best practice
This upswing in grant programming has driven the development of – and debate on – best practice in grant fund set up, management and governance. That debate is live and dynamic.
It’s a debate driven by the increasing use of effective ‘off the shelf’ licenced grant management software[i] platforms such as ML PROJECT[ii] and by widespread use, rapid adaptation and high profile of grant programming in Ukraine and other challenging or contested spaces.
The debate is also driven by the determined and strategic lead that USAID has taken (see for example its DAI managed Digital Futures Programme[iii]) on the mainstreaming of the use of digital tools to improve the delivery of aid across USAID programmes and its creation of a staff cadre of digital diplomats/humanitarians. It’s a focus which smaller donors are beginning to notice if not yet, wholeheartedly, to embrace.
Key elements of best practice
The list we set out below seeks to capture best practices in the use of digital platforms to set up, drive and deliver grant programmes.
1) Don’t reinvent the wheel
Given the availability of affordable quality cloud-based SaaS products for grant management it’s striking how many large contractors and philanthropic funds still seek to build their own clunky excel based analogue systems or try and cannibalize/retrofit their own internal financial ERP to produce the logs, management accounts and reporting for complex grant programming. The risk of this approach is well evidenced in red and amber traffic light donor reports on grant programme performance.
The lesson is clear: complex grant programmes in fragile and contested spaces need proper grant programme software to keep track of the complexities of grant programmes: their governance, the contracting of grantees, the monitoring and measuring of their performance and delivery, and accounting for spending.
Leaders should consider where on the software spectrum their teams and programmes sit: if it’s at the cannibalise/retrofit/manual end of the spectrum it is time to consider a serious nudge towards a specialist platform.
2) Proper set up at inception
It’s not enough just to have good software, the old adage that a ‘stitch in time saves nine’ holds true for grant management. Making sure that your grant management software is set up and configured properly at the outset of the programme is obviously important but often overlooked in the rush of meetings, and inception activities. It’s important too to ensure that the technical and training support offered by the software licence provider is fully built into start up activities as this is the key to downstream success.
Too often the setup of the software /platform lags behind the operational roll out of activities and generation of data: this creates headaches with subsequent attempts to capture and integrate data and points to another adage involving stable doors and bolting horses.
Leaders should keep an eye on this and make sure software and delivery is in lockstep from the outset.
3) Think about the structure of your programme and what you want to measure
Digital tools can create huge time and efficiency savings by quickly and efficiently drawing out insights…but they aren’t magic. They process the information that’s fed into them. You can’t analyse data that you aren’t collecting. If you’re interested in understanding the value for money of your project (Economy, Efficiency, Effectiveness and Equity) – Hint: You should be! – then think about how your data needs to be structured at the start of the project.
Management teams should be looking to set up their platforms so that they easily generate, for example: portfolio budget status and forecasts, consolidated risk profiles, consolidate work plans and deliverable status, supplier capacity and performance reviews, and aggregated progress towards outcome and output targets.
4) Think about ‘change management’ within the grant-making organisation
Even with digital tools grant management is complex and has many moving parts; training and support for staff is essential.
Think hard about what training is needed and for who. For most people, change is difficult and, often, resented. Particularly where it means doing things differently. We all get quite set in our ways, and it can be difficult to move away from what you know – for example excel based management – and all successful change needs to be managed.
Equally, what might be obvious to someone who has worked on and administered many grant programmes may not be so obvious to someone making their first grant application. Think about what guidance would be most useful and try to proactively get it in front of your internal and external users. Training doesn’t have to be costly – and there are some great ways of doing it cheaply and effectively – but it does have to be there!
With staff assailed by new platforms and technical challenges from all directions it’s essential that the mastering of new technologies and their application to delivery is presented in a positive light, seen as a core skill and is rewarded and recognised.
5) Holding data properly matters. Many Grants Programmes do amazing work – make sure that the evaluators know where to find it.
When managing via excel or email, a lot of data inevitably gets lost and unencrypted personal data can drift around desktops and file shares aimlessly. This is bad for several reasons – it means that Programme paperwork is hard to track down, meaning that reviews and evaluations are incredibly painful for both the reviewer and the reviewee, and it means data is floating around aimlessly.
Most international development programmes and projects have clauses relating to data in the contract or grant agreements. A proper grant management system should include a file repository so that files, contacts and outputs can be stored securely all in one place and easily extracted for long term storage with a funder (or appropriately cleansed of personally identifiable information in a single click before archiving).
6) Cyber Security is getting more important
Grant management programmes deal with large sums of money and are already becoming a target for cyber criminals. The advent of AI and masked emails – where you believe you’re talking to the right person – means that two-factor authentication is an absolute must. It may sound obvious but it’s absolutely vital that there are clear, documented authorisations pointing towards the correct account numbers.
7) Maintaining integrity of supply chains and going ‘the last mile’ need extra care
Grant programmes, and particularly those that operate in contested areas must be able to prove that humanitarian supplies, cash or even military equipment reaches those for whom they were intended.
Effective grant programmes – and particularly ones that are delivered by heavily scrutinised agencies in complex or contested theatres – need to have effective software to track grants, assets & grantees: this software can and should be underpinned by the use of other technologies to track location and chain of custody. At MetricsLed we work with clients to incorporate remoting sensing technology and to ensure, for example, that non-lethal security equipment reaches and is in use by the correct beneficiaries in rebel held parts of Syria.
Leaders need to satisfy themselves that the systems they have for last mile delivery and asset tracking are fit for purpose and secure. Recent scandals in cash dispersal programmes and food and nutrition in the DRC and Ethiopia respectively are salutary lessons in what can go wrong.
8) Fraud identification and reporting remains a broader challenge
International development has massive problems with under reporting of fraud, corruption and safeguarding concerns– and we can and should think about how our grant management tools can support improvements here. For example, in the 2022/23 period, the FCDO reported only £3m lost to fraud – which clearly understates the reality of a multi-billion-pound aid programme.
Digital project and grant management tools can, and are, helping to reduce fraud but there’s a long way to go. Even small changes can make a big difference and at MetricsLed we’re continually updating our platforms to ensure that they can better support the identification and reporting of fraud, corruption and safeguarding concerns for donors, contractors, grantees, and beneficiaries.
Conclusions and actions for leaders
Software is an effective way of capturing and locking best practice into new programmes and streamlining and bringing consistency to delivery. We believe that proven platforms such as ML PROJECT capture this best practice: provided on a Software as a Service (SaaS) basis and hosted in the cloud they can effectively, and efficiently underpin the management, delivery and reporting requirements of large programmes in challenging environments.
All at a fraction of the cost of managing such programmes in the traditional manual spreadsheet-driven approach that is still – rather alarmingly for Boards, Directors, Shareholders & intended beneficiaries – to be found under the bonnet of a majority of aid funded grant programmes.
We encourage leaders to:
- take a look under the bonnets of their programmes, check for analogue and excel based processes and run though the issues identified in this paper.
- sell the use of new technology to your people…and once it’s configured and working: Use it! Demand beneficiary data, infographics and analytics, use the dashboards, ask for portfolio budget status and forecasts, for consolidated risk profiles and consolidated work plans.
For an overview of MetricsLed’s ML PROJECT please go to: https://www.metricsled.com/metricsled-project/
Snapshot of ML PROJECT in 2023:
- Is being used to support grant giving in over 70 countries including Ukraine, Syria and Somalia.
- Has 1300+ live users
- Has been used for more than 600 programme reviews
- Is working with over 2000 registered organisations
- Has disbursed over $200 million in grants in last 24 months
- Supports Grant Programmes being implemented by contractors such as Adam Smith International, Chemonics, DAI, Alinea, Crown Agents & Palladium with funding from a wide range of donors including FCDO, USAID, the European Commission and Canada.
[i] Often referred to as SaaS products – Software as a Service.