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Rachel Kimber , Adam Liebling and Sam Caplan
Join Submittable with special guests Rachel Kimber and Adam Liebling, grants managers at the forefront of philanthropy’s future tense.
Grants managers play a pivotal and evolving role in how foundations and corporate funders meet big goals. They put theory into practice, pedal to the metal, and innovation to the test. How?
In this episode of Impact Audio, you’ll hear from two grants managers who are pushing philanthropy forward: Rachel Kimber and Adam Liebling.
Listen in to learn about:
Why grants managers are also stage managers, buttressing like mad
How the role evolved from compliance keeper to data’s command central
What philanthropy needs to swipe from dating app tech
Why wealth still gets equated with wisdom (at trust’s expense)
Oral reporting and other ways software should be more than a filing system
Full of passion, intelligence, and healthy debate, this episode is sure to fire you up. We hope it also provides new insights and a bigger framework for understanding grants management, technology, and philanthropy’s forward momentum.
For more than 15 years, Rachel Kimber has led and contributed to the philanthropic sector through her commitment to grantmaking that is human-centered, data-driven, and technology-supported. She is advancing the implementation of emergent philanthropic practices around equity and technological innovations. Since 2015, Rachel has served as Grants Manager at the Arcus Foundation, overseeing an international portfolio of LGBTQ rights and ape conservation grantees spanning from Indonesia to Mexico. She has served as a volunteer with PEAK Grantmaking, Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) and Philanthropy New York (PNY). Visit Rachel Kimber on LinkedIn.
Adam Liebling has over 20 years of grants management and philanthropy experience, having worked at Carnegie Corporation of New York, the ASPCA, American Jewish World Service, and now at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where he oversees a staff of 15 and the grant operations of a $700 million annual portfolio. He is a long-time volunteer with PEAK Grantmaking and TAG and is a frequent writer and speaker on equitable grantmaking and the future of philanthropy. Visit Adam Liebling on LinkedIn.
Sam Caplan is the Vice President of Social Impact at Submittable. Inspired by the amazing work performed by grantmakers of all stripes, at Submittable, Sam strives to help them achieve their missions through better, more effective software. Sam has served as founder of New Spark Strategy, Chief Information Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, and director of technology at the Walmart Foundation. He consults, advises, and writes prolifically on social impact technology, strategy, and innovation. Sam recently published a series of whitepapers with the Technology Association of Grantmakers titled “The Strategic Role of Technology in Philanthropy.”
Here are the people, organizations, acts, and ideas Rachel and Adam refer to, in the order they are mentioned:
Interested in more quality content focused on leveraging technology for positive change? Here are a few Submittable resources:
Improve Equity with #FixTheForm (Webinar)
The Review (Bi-monthly newsletter by Sam Caplan)
RACHEL KIMBER: Grants administration is where the rubber meets the road. The systems, process, and tools that the organization decides to implement, have a role in conveying the organization's values.
We, the grants managers, help move these lofty organizational ideas from intent to action.
RACHEL MINDELL: Hi and welcome to season two of Impact Audio, the show focused, almost obsessively, on philanthropy, nonprofits, corporate citizenship, and social change. I’m producer Rachel Mindell.
Today, we’re putting the spotlight on grants managers—and who better to talk about the role than two grants managers themselves? Rachel Kimber and Adam Liebling join Sam Caplan, Submittable’s VP of Social Impact, to discuss where the field of grants management has come from, where it’s heading, and why we should be collectively swiping right on smarter philanthropy tech.
We’re so glad you’re here. If you haven’t already, please take a sec to subscribe at submittable.com/impact-audio. It’s free and we’ll send you some cool stuff. And now, a little more about our guests:
For more than 15 years, Rachel Kimber has led and contributed to the philanthropic sector through her commitment to grantmaking that is human-centered, data-driven, and technology-supported. She is advancing the implementation of emergent philanthropic practices around equity and technological innovations. Since 2015, Rachel has served as Grants Manager at the Arcus Foundation, overseeing an international portfolio of LGBTQ rights and ape conservation grantees spanning from Indonesia to Mexico.
Adam Liebling has over 20 years of grants management and philanthropy experience, having worked at Carnegie Corporation of New York, the ASPCA, American Jewish World Service, and now at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where he oversees a staff of 15 and the grant operations of a $700 million annual portfolio.
We hope you enjoy the conversation!
SAM CAPLAN: So today we're going to talk with Rachel Kimber and Adam Liebling, two of philanthropy's most talented and prominent grants managers, about their work, and how they and their colleagues are redefining the role of grants management within philanthropy.
So why don't we just get started with a short, sort of like introduction for each of you? So Rachel, why don't you just tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to the world of Grants Management?
RACHEL KIMBER: Sure. I've always been passionate, eccentric, and a bit of a nerd. I enjoy being an extrovert at the center of a brainstorming session as much as I love spending hours reading and writing at the computer.
So my career journey in philanthropy started at a small family foundation, where I wore many hats. And when it was time to move on, I reflected on the different specialist roles I had played, and which one I might want to step into in my next role. And I chose grants management over becoming a program officer, or an office manager, or back office IT.
Being a grants manager is being a stage manager. We're everywhere, buttressing everyone. As my colleague, Monica Charles, likes to say, we keep the trains on the tracks and on time.
SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, and I have to tell you, I so much appreciate and love hearing you say that out of a variety of roles that you could have gone into in philanthropy, that you intentionally chose grants management.
And Adam Liebling, how about you? What brought you into grants management?
ADAM LIEBLING: Well you know so Rachel is very lucky that she got to choose to be in grants management. Like most of our colleagues, I fell into it.
I was 20 years old. I was temping as an accounts payable clerk, and amazingly, I got placed by the agency at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. And one thing led to another, and I ended up as their grants assistant, and then over the years got promoted, and the rest is history.
SAM CAPLAN: So for those in our listening audience who may not be familiar with the role of grants management, give us a little bit of an overview. Like, what does a grants manager do? And why is this an important role at a foundation or any grant-making organization?
RACHEL KIMBER: That's a great question, Sam. I think for me, the heart and soul of what grants management is, is the lifecycle of the grant. And I think that's a really simplified way to look at what starts as an initial concept, proposal, application, and then moving through to payment, and reporting.
And so I think that's the nut of grants management, that from that core, reaches out and touches all departments at a donor organization.
SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, Adam, I want to quote you. In looking at our meeting notes, you wrote something that I just love. You said in regards to grants management that we need to know law, IRS regulations, finance, accounting, bookkeeping, knowledge management, change management, project management, staff management, program development, board relations, communications, the list goes on and on.
So that sounds like a pretty impossible task.
ADAM LIEBLING: Yeah, grants managers have to be a Jack or Jill of all trades, and we have this very large breadth and depth of knowledge of how to perform philanthropy.
SAM CAPLAN: And how have you seen the role evolve, Adam? I know that both you and Rachel have been involved with PEAK for a very long time. And when I say PEAK, of course I mean PEAK Grantmaking, which is a tremendous member organization for those involved in the grants management role. So given your experience and your time with that organization, how have you seen this evolve over the last several years?
ADAM LIEBLING: Absolutely, it really has evolved and continues to evolve. When I first got into grants management over 20 years ago, it was very much a clerical, heavily administrative role.
And then a number of things happened externally that gave more meat to the position. So there were things like Sarbanes-Oxley, OFAC, which came out of the Patriot Act, and executive orders around the Patriot Act.
So the position became a lot more compliance-heavy. It gave us more of an importance, or a sense of importance in our role. But then what's interesting is that it's been flipped over the years. So then, maybe going into the late 2000s, data became more important. Looking at systems, it used to be that there was basically just a handful of grants management systems. Then the landscape blew up.
So grants managers became more attuned to IT issues, data, data management, metrics, outcomes. And then what we're seeing now is a shift in how we think about risk, how we think about performing philanthropy, and grants management professionals are the ones with that expertise to be able to help navigate their foundations through these changes, so that foundations can achieve the values that they aspire toward in their practices.
RACHEL KIMBER: I would just push back on it's not necessarily the expertise that the grants manager has, but it's the expertise that we're asked to cultivate in order to better manage the database for the needs of the organization. So the entire organization has data dependencies and needs, and data facilitates storytelling to and for external stakeholders, organizational learning, impact assessment. So data facilitates strategic decision-making across the entire organization. And data moves cross-departmentally, and across systems, and someone, the stage manager, needs to help facilitate those conversations.
And so data management is something that grants managers have been asked to step into simply because of where they sit. And whether or not they have the expertise, they're being asked to develop the technical tools to assist strategic decision making across the organization.
SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, I think that makes perfect sense.
So you mentioned how now grants managers are being asked to start scrutinizing the data, right? And I think a next logical step is going to be like, well, what insights can a grants manager derive from this data, right?
So are you guys seeing this sort of evolution with grants management?
ADAM LIEBLING: Yes absolutely. You know, grants managers really play the largest role in leading innovation at foundations, including looking at how we can incorporate equity in what we do. And the reason why grants managers play this role is because we can actually show how it gets done. So foundations, for example, can talk about equity, or innovation, or creativity, or risk taking, but without knowing how it can be operationalized, it's just talk.
SAM CAPLAN: So one of the reasons that I was super excited to have both of you on the podcast is that I love your posts on LinkedIn and Twitter, and I really sort of feel like you guys are, in a lot of ways, leading the sector in terms of innovative thought and originality, and really pushing the boundaries of the grants management profession.
I'd love to hear from you, maybe starting with Rachel, what do you think is the future of the grants application?
RACHEL KIMBER: Well I think at its heart, the grant application is a proxy for a conversation between the applicant and the financial resources, the donor. And so, while there are finite resources for all the needs in the world, nonprofits and the philanthropic spaces need to step up to bridge those gaps. And so, both possess needed resources, human capital, financial resources, and the application is an opportunity to determine how to best deploy these resources.
So is the application a box-checking exercise that needs to change, so that there is an actual learning opportunity between the two parties?
SAM CAPLAN: What about you, Adam? How are you envisioning the evolution of the grants application?
ADAM LIEBLING: I completely agree with Rachel.
When you look to the future, you have to think about the present and the past, and why do we do things? And when you look at the application, this is part of the mechanics of philanthropy that has not changed in over 100 years, where the foundation comes up with the idea, the program, then they put out a call for proposals. Then everybody has to stop what they're doing and fight for the same—for this meager amount of money.
And so all of these projects around #FixTheForm, and I love #FixTheForm, I love the people behind it, and the intentions behind it, and the things like common grant applications, streamlining, but it doesn't get to the heart of the matter, which is this is still a very extractive process.
So as philanthropy talks about becoming more equitable, we have to think about our practices and how that can be disrupted. So when I put on my futurist hat, I say #NixTheForm because the future is that there will not be an application.
And talking about data earlier, if we have a common data-- centralized database, or a data commons that has all of this information, including funder information, what is stopping us from working within that centralized place and using algorithms and current technology to be able to match organizations with each other, funders and nonprofits, without having to be extractive?
Just like LinkedIn tells me who I should connect with, why don't we have that in philanthropy? Or dating apps, if you think about how we do philanthropy versus an app where—that everybody is using and is matching people, for me it's very strange that we're still working in this way.
Not that I have a dating app. I'm happily married. My wife is listening.
RACHEL KIMBER: I love this matchmaking idea, though. And I think on dating apps, we put ourselves out there pretty authentically in the hopes of finding a relationship. And the types of relationships vary, from serious, looking for marriage to just looking for someone to go out with on Friday night.
And so trust-based philanthropy to accountability-driven, there's lots of different ways to establish a relationship, and that's OK. As long as we're clear, and transparent, and consistent, then we can find better matches, and we honestly, and authentically, and transparently, can communicate our needs, and expectations, and boundaries.
SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, it's a great point. I'm hoping that through trust-based philanthropy, that more authentic conversations are happening between funders and grantees, so that grantees have that opportunity to talk about what their real needs are.
And a lot of times, those real needs aren't so easy to map back directly to impact. And it feels like that's been like a real point of contention between funders and nonprofits, is that for so many years, everything from the funder perspective has mapped back to, show us the impact that these dollars are going to have.
And if you're a nonprofit, and you need some level of technical training, or you need to digitize your environment, right? You need laptops. You need software. That's not always so easy to directly map how having those things are going to produce some level of impact that resonates with a grantmaker.
RACHEL KIMBER: Yes. I think the issue is being clear about what is available. We just had an example where a grantee needed a Zoom subscription. Something really simple, small, low cost, and they didn't know that they could include that in their project budget. And so I think that's a really big tripping point, is again, the lines of communication. What kind of relationships are we developing to be able to just articulate what's needed and what we-- again, as donor organizations, we have boundaries also, and so there may be certain things that we're not able to do.
But can we help point in the direction? Or connect? Or build networks to fill some of those gaps? I don't think we're doing a great job of that now.
ADAM LIEBLING: Yeah so I should have mentioned this earlier, but my views during this podcast are my own. So I don't want to speak for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which employs me and I'm very grateful for that.
I will say, I think I can say, that Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is certainly making more general operating support grants. I know a lot of our peers are making a lot more general operating support grants as a percentage of their portfolio.
But going back to the concept of trust-based philanthropy, for me, it's just very obvious. And I think what seems so radical a few years ago is just so obvious now, and in time, it won't even be trust-based philanthropy with quote marks. It is just philanthropy. It's how we work.
And it's actually interesting to think about why haven't we worked this way before? And you look at the DNA in philanthropy, and the DNA of philanthropy is just based on suspicion.
When you look at Andrew Carnegie's foundational essay, the Gospel of Wealth, he makes the case that the wealthy know better how to use philanthropic dollars than the communities that they serve. He almost literally says that, word-for-word.
And that was just taken for granted for generations, that yes, let's conflate wealth with wisdom. If you have money, that must mean you're really, really smart, and what we're realizing-- I mean, philanthropy is realizing it now, but the people that have been doing this work, and the community activists, and the movement leaders have known this from the beginning, that they should be trusted to be able to do the work that is driving change.
RACHEL KIMBER: And I've heard some pushback on trust-based philanthropy, around trust has to be earned. And I think that's completely accurate. The analogy that comes to my mind is my neighbors, and my community, with varying levels of trust. And some know, we usually use the back door to enter, right? That's just where friends know to go, and the door is unlocked most of the time. But it takes time to get there. Not everyone in my community knows that that's the approach and that's the process.
And it's about building the trust and building the relationship to understand what that is, and how do we do that in a more inclusive, equitable way?
ADAM LIEBLING: So on a transactional level, you want to know the person that you're going to be giving the money to. But from a conceptual level, foundations are the stewards of really, what is the public's money. Because some wealthy person decided not to pay taxes, which would have gone toward the public coffers, ostensibly at least for the public good, and took that money and tucked it away, and put it into a trust or an endowment, and then slowly metes out the money according to that wealthy person's interests. And of course, most of philanthropy was started with wealthy white men. So it's wealthy white men's interests.
So, but this is public money. And we created all of these processes to hold on to that money and pull it back, and be very, very careful about where it goes. And I think that with these conversations around equity, and risk taking, and rethinking how this money was amassed, accumulated, held, distributed, I think it's a real reckoning for philanthropy. And as grants managers, we have to show how it can change.
SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, very well said, both of you.
I'm wondering, how to operationalize that new world, perhaps the role of grant manager evolves again to becoming a role within a grant making organization that actually goes out and does the research, right?
Or even taking it a step further, to going out into the community and beginning the relationship building process with the nonprofits that the organization may work with?
ADAM LIEBLING: I definitely see that as an evolution of the program officer role for sure. So especially as power gets shifted, and decisions around who gets the grants, that decision making gets not delegated, but shared or ceded, to those communities being impacted. Then I think there's going to be this existential crisis within the program officer world around well, what is it that we should be doing? And I think the answer is relationship building. It's about relationships.
RACHEL KIMBER: And I can see the grants managers continuing to support the program officers in their research and vetting of organizations. But to bring it really back to this operational role that we hold, is grants administration is where the rubber meets the road. The systems, process, and tools that the organization decides to implement, have a role in conveying the organization's values.
We, the grants managers, help move these lofty organizational ideas from intent to action. That's why this conversation about alternate and oral reporting is so interesting. There's been a call to center the grantee. Shift the burden. How do we actually do that? And it's fallen on the grants managers to figure out what that looks like.
SAM CAPLAN: So Rachel, speaking of alternate and oral reporting, like, this has been one of the most fun projects that I think has occurred over the course of 2021.
And so, I think long story short, I think this began with like a post on the PEAK Grantmaking forum, right? There was a general discussion around like, hey, what are we doing to reduce the burden of grantees when it comes to progress reporting? And I think you volunteered to host a conversation and all of a sudden there was like 100 organizations literally that said, yes I'm in. I want to have this conversation. Tell us a little more about what's happening there.
RACHEL KIMBER: I'm glad you framed it as fun. I've been having a lot of fun with it. I'm sure not many would call reporting process review a fun project, but it has been really wonderful, and rewarding to facilitate the conversation affiliated with Peak Grantmaking. And the visual that comes to mind as you were describing the journey, Sam, is those sinkholes in Florida. They start out small and then all of a sudden, they've got like, cars and houses falling into them.
So hopefully, a shinier, happier vision for what the reporting process will look like, not a giant sinkhole in Florida.
But that's kind of what happened, is that there was so much interest and energy that grew around this PEAK post about who wants to talk about how we can attend to the grantee, the program officer, and the operational needs around reporting?
And it's come up on the Center for Effective Philanthropy data resourcing for years, that reporting is one of the biggest pain points. It's always rated lowest by the grantee perception surveys.
And so, to grab that low-hanging fruit, and bring—I think we had two sessions. One in August and then another in October, and there were a hundred people, 100 representatives from I don't know how many different organizations, showed up to talk about how to update their reporting process.
And it started with asking, why are we collecting these reports, right? It's only for expenditure responsibility grantees that there's a compliance requirement. And so why are we asking all of these-- from small shops to huge entities, to fill out all of these reporting forms for all these different entities that take up to eight hours per year, per grant, for the organization?
SAM CAPLAN: Rachel, in your conversations, did you get a sense—Is your sense that the winds are shifting in terms of progress reports?
RACHEL KIMBER: I think this is a space where grants managers can really step up, and through all parts of the grant lifecycle, query why? And start asking across the organization, why are we collecting this data? Is there timeliness? Is there information exchange? Is there relationship building? What's the purpose of this zombie practice? And can we start to get some challenge to the status quo?
ADAM LIEBLING: And the great secret about philanthropy is that just about everything we do is self-inflicted, or self-imposed. There's actually very few rules and regulations governing grantmaking.
And I know we're talking a lot about technology, but this isn't even a technology solution. This is a basic run-of-the-mill business 101 needs assessment and risk assessment.
SAM CAPLAN: Yeah. I think I agree with much of what you're both saying there.
And so, what do you guys think that—what does technology need to do to evolve or to change to be capable of supporting philanthropy at some point down the road?
ADAM LIEBLING: Well, the problem with the state of philanthropy tech is that there are no market forces to get it to innovate. Tech companies in our space, well, tech companies in general look to meet the needs of clients. And for us in philanthropy, those needs have historically been around checking boxes, compliance, really not innovating or coming up with anything new or disruptive. So there aren't that many people looking to disrupt and create the Uber of philanthropy tech.
And I think it's also—it's sort of a chicken or an egg, because the technology is waiting to respond to the needs of philanthropy. But philanthropy may not have the imagination to see how those needs can change without seeing without technology innovating.
RACHEL KIMBER: I think Adam pinged it with just the word imagination, right? So we really do have a grants management system that's a filing cabinet in a computer, with a workflow layered on top, which is wonderful. I mean, it's a great step forward, but it's not nearly enough.
I think through technology we could be doing a better job of demonstrating impact, which would then create the carrot to keep doing it. But right now that's missing. And I think that's a real loss for the sector.
There's also a lot of conversation in our sector about becoming learning organizations. And so I think part of that learning should allow for space, not just for theory of change strategy refresh, but also thinking about operations, and infrastructure projects, which are generally far less glamorous, but just as necessary.
And I think just like nuts and bolts infrastructure projects, the plumbing, the electricity, the city infrastructure that has to be maintained to keep things moving, also applies to philanthropy. If we're not attending to what we're doing operationally, and investing resources in those things, they're not going to work.
And I think we're seeing right now that we are having challenges to deploying technology tools in ways that are really useful for the sector, or impactful for the sector.
SAM CAPLAN: Right. Yeah, I think what both of you are saying really resonates with me. And when I think about the role of technology, and software, and data, like for me, it's mostly about unlocking creativity. And it feels like with philanthropy in general, we're at this precipice
And now, to your point, Adam, will philanthropy respond? Or will philanthropy continue to go down essentially the same path that it has been going down for the last 25 or 30 years?
ADAM LIEBLING: Well that's a lot to unpack. I mean, I try to stay positive. Rachel and I joke a lot because Rachel, to me, is one of the most passionate people in this space, and I'm probably one of the most cynical.
But I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. I think that grants management can certainly play a large role in pushing on technology to be able to meet the emerging needs of philanthropy.
And we're not talking about virtual reality, metaverse, augmented reality, nanobots, NFTs, crypto, blockchain. We're talking about basic current technology that's been around for 20 years that if we had it in philanthropy, it could really manifest the changes that we want to see.
I mean, if you think about it, participatory grantmaking is so difficult for foundations, because they don't see how they can easily do it. And to me, that's the easiest technology I can imagine.
There's GoFundMe, which helps individual donors. Why don't we have a GoFundMe for philanthropy?
RACHEL KIMBER: And I enjoy working with Adam because he's endlessly creative and bending different applications to philanthropic needs.
I think there's also an important through line here as we're talking about technology, there are all kinds of expertise that are needed to move the needle on these conversations, and to really see our mission and movement leaders succeed in the social sector.
And Alix Dunn, an incredible researcher, is sharing her ideas on technical intuition. There's really wonderful research to dive into. And what she shares is anyone can think like a technologist. Anyone can bring their expertise to these technical tools.
SAM CAPLAN: That's a great point. I have felt for a long time now that there has been this amazing blurring of the line between technologists and grants management, and I hope that line continues to blur.
ADAM LIEBLING: And I will just say that I think everyone should join this conversation and should start thinking along these lines, because eventually, it may take longer for philanthropy, but eventually technology will create change. And we don't want to be stuck as the travel agents, or the Yellow Cab drivers that suddenly didn't see it coming, and suddenly we're wondering, what do we do with our lives now?
RACHEL KIMBER: I think grants managers would benefit from imagining, what does impossible look like?
RACHEL MINDELL: Thanks for joining us. Be sure to check out the episode notes to learn more about Rachel and Adam’s thought leadership and the organizations they serve.
Impact Audio is edited and produced by Jordan Marvin, Laura Steele, and yours truly. Submittable is a cloud-based social impact platform designed to help your team make better decisions and have a bigger impact. We’d love to partner with you to maximize social good and create lasting change—find out more at Submittable.com. And until next time, take good care.
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