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Why Excel Is Not a Grant Management System

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Have Your Grants Outgrown Excel?

Excel has been a tool of choice for small scale grant projects for years, and we can understand why. The system is ubiquitous with simple data management and manipulation, and almost everybody has some experience using the software. This made it an easier tool to use than some of the more complex legacy and custom grant management systems that emerged throughout the 2000’s. Those systems offered purpose-built functionality that made grant data much more useful but required dedicated IT staff due to their complexity. As time has gone by however, purpose-built systems have become more intuitive and even more powerful, while Excel’s simplicity has become a weakness for grant management teams looking to scale their projects.

Excel is a spreadsheet software for storing, organising, and manipulating data. While it can be used to track grants and manage grant-related information, it is not specifically designed for this purpose and lacks many of the features and capabilities that are needed to effectively manage grants. In this article we will cover the full spectrum of these weaknesses including Excel’s limited capabilities across data management, collaboration and outcome reporting. Let’s unpack each of these points and examine a more optimal solution.

Table of Contents

Limited Capacity

One of the main limitations of Excel as a grant management system is its limited capacity for storing and organising large amounts of data efficiently. Excel is a spreadsheet software that is designed to handle relatively small amounts of data and may not be able to handle the volume of information that is typically associated with grant management. We’re not so much talking about the raw numbers, or even file sizes, but the organisational relationship between data points and their dependencies.

A grant project is comprised of so much data that is used to inform managers and stakeholders of timelines, process statuses and required tasks. To create something approximating a payment milestone in Excel would require significant conditional formatting, formulaic data manipulation, and even then, would still require a large amount of manual input. This information would then need to be connected to separate spreadsheets containing financial and reporting data.

Here is where additional problems arise given the interrelated nature of much of this data – one miscalculation in one cell, in one sheet, in one workbook could result in hours of lost time when you eventually realise that your grant data isn’t adding up. It’s something that happens all the time, and most grant managers agree that an Excel grant program built out across multiple spreadsheets is a risky strategy. Funding data needs to be stored and organised in a way that is easily accessible and searchable. Excel may not have the capacity to handle this volume of data effectively, particularly if the organisation is managing multiple grants at the same time.

Inefficient Document Management

It also lacks the functionality to manage documents, which purpose-built grant systems handle with ease. In Excel you can link out to documents using hyperlinks, but this convoluted workaround is messy and relies on external data storage, going against best principles of data unification in grant management. Purpose-built grant systems provide a visually engaging, intuitive approach to document management which meets all the functional requirements you’d expect – integrating seamlessly with application management and assessment processes.

Enquire's Grant Document Management Features

In addition, Excel does not have built-in features for organising and searching data in the same way that a dedicated grant management system would. Of course, Excel is excellent at small calculations and if you are managing a single project you are likely to find actionable insights using pivot tables that offer a lot of information in just a few clicks. For organisations making multiple grants per funding round, and multiple funding rounds per year, however, this is just not feasible. Excel lacks the scalability of a purpose-built grant system, and this can make it difficult to find specific pieces of information without extensive manual sorting and filtering of data across multiple files.

Overall, these limitations can make it difficult to effectively manage and track grant-related information, particularly for organisations that are managing many grants. This leads into the second big problem with Excel as a GMS, and that is how the data is actually handled by grant management teams.

Excel Lacks Grant Management System Collaboration Features

Another shortcoming of Excel as a grant management system is its lack of built-in collaboration features. Excel suffers several collaboration setbacks including:

Insufficient real-time collaboration options: While multiple users can edit the same spreadsheet at the same time, there is a delay in saving and syncing changes, so users may not see each other’s changes immediately.

Excel lacks user roles to streamline business processes: While grant management systems like Enquire allow users to configure roles-based permissions to complete specific tasks, such as processing payments, Excel does not. This in turn raises security concerns and negates the possibility of enforceable business process workflows – a core feature of modern grant management systems.

There is a risk of conflicting changes: If two users try to make changes to the same cell at the same time, Excel will not know which change to keep, and the user who saves their changes last will overwrite the other user’s changes. The impacts of these changes go beyond annoyance, and can prove an audit risk if unnoticed. The lack of user roles mentioned above also impacts the transparency of projects, especially when changes are made without clear tracking.

Data loss and corruption risks: If a user makes changes to a spreadsheet and then closes the file without saving, those changes will be lost. This issue is avoided entirely by cloud-based solutions such as the Enquire Grant Management System. While Excel can also be used in online mode, this setting still experiences syncing issues and limits functionality. The same applies to unexpected computer crashes, internet disconnects and other technical issues that can occur while a spreadsheet is open. Changes may not be saved, and files often corrupt or revert to a much earlier state.

There is a risk of security breaches: Should a user shares a spreadsheet with someone they do not trust that person is free to access sensitive information or make unauthorised changes to the spreadsheet. This is especially problematic given the sensitive data involved in grant management, and the regularity with which third party interactions are required. Enquire overcomes this issue using roles-based permissions and internal and external user portals for different users to access.

Excel also lacks features such as notifications, emails, alerts, comments against workflow data and other required reminders for efficiency and collaboration that move projects forward.

In addition, Excel does not have features for sharing documents or data with other users, which can make it difficult to collaborate on grant-related tasks and projects. This can be particularly problematic for organisations that have multiple team members working on different aspects of the same grant, as it may be difficult to coordinate efforts and ensure that everyone has the most up-to-date information.

Inefficient Reporting

Another limitation of Excel as a grant management system is its lack of robust reporting capabilities. Excel is a spreadsheet software that is primarily designed for storing and manipulating data and does not have the same level of reporting functionality as a dedicated grant management system.

In grant management, organisations constantly need to generate accurate and up-to-date reports on grant activity, such as budget tracking, expenses, and progress. These reports often need to be customised to meet the specific requirements of each particular grant and may need to be generated on a regular basis. This is especially true given growing expectations around transparency and accountability in grant management – with funders and the public alike demanding more consistent data from grant making and receiving organisations.

Excel may not have the ability to easily generate these types of reports, particularly if the data is spread across multiple worksheets or if it needs to be combined with data from other sources. This can result in a time-consuming and manual process of generating reports, which may not be efficient or accurate. Furthermore, every time a new worksheet or Excel file is introduced to the reporting process additional security and data issues arise, compounding the risk of errors that could render your report useless, or worse, for stakeholders. Besides these more technical details, there is also the unavoidable fact that most people just don’t like looking at spreadsheets – least of all your busiest stakeholders. Reporting data is always easier to understand and analyse when it is visually appealing and easy to read, and unfortunately grant data stored in Excel is neither.

In contrast, a purpose-built grant management system typically has more robust reporting capabilities – automation, single-click and smart search and filter functions that seamlessly draw data from throughout the system – that generate customised reports on grant activity more easily and efficiently. Modern grant systems can generate visually engaging and dynamic reports that can be quickly digested at a glance by all stakeholders. This can save organisations time and resources and ensure that they have access to accurate and up-to-date information about their grants.

Risk of Errors

Another shortcoming of Excel as a grant management system is the risk of errors due to its manual nature. Because Excel is a spreadsheet software that relies on manual data entry and manipulation, there is a risk that errors can occur when working with grant-related information.

These errors can occur for a variety of reasons, such as typos, data entry mistakes, incorrect formulas, and team members working in local versions of a cloud file – essentially creating double work. They can also be difficult to detect, as there is no built-in mechanism for checking the accuracy of data in Excel. Excel is also notorious for awkward formatting errors that can be easy to miss until they are causing frustrations – at which point they are all consuming, wasting time and energy as you attempt to deconstruct the error and determine how long you’ve been working with the wrong numbers.

This is a serious problem as even minor errors in grant management data can have huge consequences, leading to incorrect budgets, misreported expenses, and other issues that can compromise the integrity of the grant and its subsequent project delivery. In addition, errors can be time-consuming and costly to fix, as they may require manual corrections and may involve a significant amount of work to resolve. Without audit logs, and simple version history tracking, it can also be hard to know who made the mistake and when adding additional questions to the integrity of your data.

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Minor errors, major consequences

Grant management teams are weary of such mistakes as the public, and audit offices, demand greater transparency and auditability in grant programs. Without systems in place to capture how an error was made, a mistake may even look like an intentional obfuscation of data, which is a massive red flag in current discussions of grant transparency.

Overall, the risk of errors in Excel can make it difficult to manage grants effectively and can increase the risk of problems that can impact the success of a grant. A purpose-built grant management system is a better choice for these organisations as it can help to reduce the risk of errors and ensure the accuracy of grant-related information. Enquire for instance, has a complete audit log that captures information on user actions, with time stamps to make analysing processes simple.

What is a purpose-built grant management system?

A purpose-built grant management system is a software application that is specifically designed to handle the unique needs of grant management. These systems are far more comprehensive and feature-rich than spreadsheet software like Excel and can provide several benefits for organisations that manage grants.

Some of the reasons a purpose-built grant management system is better than Excel include:

  1. Improved efficiency: A purpose-built grant management system can streamline and automate many of the tasks involved in grant management, such as proposal submission, budget tracking, and reporting. This can help organisations save time and resources and reduce the risk of errors.
  2. Enhanced collaboration: Enquire has built-in collaboration features, such as document sharing and real-time editing capabilities, notes, comments, and emails and alerts to keep everyone on the same page and on task. This makes it easier for multiple users to work on the same grant-related information simultaneously.
  3. Better reporting: Purpose-built grant management systems often have more robust reporting capabilities than Excel, making it easier to generate accurate, up-to-date reports on grant activity. In Enquire you can even generate complete reports from a single click – these reports are aligned with a range of your core grant processes and provide stakeholders with the snapshot data they need.
  4. Greater capacity: Purpose-built grant management systems are designed to handle large amounts of data and can store and organise a wide range of grant-related information.

Overall, while Excel can be used as a tool for grant management, a purpose-built grant management system is likely to be more efficient, effective, and comprehensive in supporting the needs of grant management users.

If you wish to see just how much better your grant management could be with a dedicated system, try our free interactive product tours below.

Tactiv Support Team

About Enquire

Enquire reduces the administrative burden of doing good, while increasing social outcomes. Manage funded projects and social investments with automations and configurable business process workflows to generate impactful outcomes that scale.

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