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Tools and Organizing Organizations: How to Wrangle Information and Databases for Grant Writers

Once you have a sufficiently large agency with concomitantly large grant writing needs and multiple funding sources, you’re going to start facing problems of scale. This means a single person is going to find managing all the efforts of the agency steadily harder, and that single person will eventually be overwhelmed. If you’re big enough, you’ll probably need to hire a programmer to roll out a custom database front-end or install a wiki for you; if you’re big, but not quite that big, a white board and calendar would suffice.

This post comes in response GWC reader Joe Orozco’s queries. He’s the Associate Grants Manager for Youth Service America in Washington D.C. and wrote to ask:

I am a huge fan of your blog and wonder if you might use it to discuss database options for grant writers. Here in my current position I prepare proposals for different departments in our office, and with folks not fans of MS Access, I am forced to use large unwieldy spreadsheets. What database or organization strategy do you use to separate and maintain data for different grants by client, or in my case, department? Thank you in advance for any information you can provide. Please do keep up the excellent work on Grant Writing Confidential.

We’re very susceptible to flattery, so we appreciate the compliments. Even better than that, he asks interesting and unusual questions, which we also like to get.

Isaac initially wrote back to say:

I assume you are interested in proposal preparation data issues, not grant management. If so, the short answer is to dump your PC and go to Macs. Mac OS X 10.5 (or “Leopard”) has a built in feature called Spotlight, which can instantly find anything on your hard drive. All you need to do is remember key words. Thus, no need to catalogue proposal info in a database. We still have a couple of old PCs and use Access for mailing lists and the like, but not for proposal management. If you are good at file management and organize proposal writing assignments into folders, and get a Mac, your life will be much easier. FYI, about six years ago, we tried to use Access for grant preparation data management and gave up. To do so, you will need a database programmer to set up the databases for you. Of course, the programmer will know nothing about grant writing, so this won’t help either.

For old school management techniques, let me take you back to 1978 when I had a job like yours. In the days before computers, I used a huge white board to track proposal status, along with a slotted accordion file sorter that sat on top of a horizontal file cabinet for paper files, and a phone sheet to track conversations. I have feeling this would work as well for you today and it did for me all those years ago.

But I wasn’t so sure this would meet the desired needs, so I suggested:

To coordinate what 20 people need, I’m not sure how I would run a database. You could probably install Apache and search tools on a single machine and turn it into a local server, but that might be overkill. For a relatively small group using a LAN, attaching a Drobo (, auto-mounting it on your computer, naming folders in a way that makes sense, and indexing like Spotlight might be ideal. But that’s just my imagination at work.

Joe replied:

Unfortunately, I am tied to a PC environment here. Spotlight does indeed sound like what I may be looking for, but to expand a little on my previous correspondence, each program in our office pursues different grant opportunities depending on the specific nature of their work. I am currently using a spreadsheet to break down information by department and their respective funders. I’m not as interested in other people having the capacity to find information. I just need something less cumbersome than a spreadsheet to keep track of various reporting calendars. I decided to write to you, because I was a fan of your tools of the trade blog post. Everything from the type of office chair to several monitors was covered, and I am hopeful that a bone will be thrown to us lowly PC users who cannot take advantage of the wonderfulness that appears to be Spotlight.

Also, on a minor unrelated point, what kind of blogging tool do you use in your web site? I like the way you’ve seamlessly integrated your blog into the scheme of your web site!

And, as for the blog:

We’re on WordPress, primarily because I began using WordPress to write The Story’s Story and so was familiar with it. Adhost, a business ISP, hosts all our sites and actually has on a different machine than, but a link goes from the latter to the former and I customized our theme to make the blog and regular site look similar. If you’re thinking about starting a blog and can’t afford Adhost—who have been very, very good and reliable over the years we’ve used them—consider Laughing Squid. I’ve heard good things about them.

Microsoft Access

Joe did mention Access in his original e-mail. No one actually likes Microsoft Access, but there is one big advantage to it: it’s the worst desktop database system except for all the others. Like democracy, it’s the least bad choice, unless FileMaker Pro has dramatically improved since version 8. If he still wanted to use Access, a competent database person could probably tie it to a website relatively quickly, easily, and cheaply.

Networked Drobo and Spotlight

If Joe was going to coordinate everything on a local machine or using the Drobo suggested above, Spotlight might do the trick. We do love Spotlight, but even it isn’t perfect; if you have a vast array of data, you might get inundated, and it still doesn’t have boolean commands from the default Spotlight prompt (So you can’t type “Youthbuild -California -Wisconsin”, for example, and get every Youthbuild proposal that doesn’t mention those two states. This can help refine queries.)

Calendars and Whiteboards

One other useful technique is a big calendar on which you write upcoming deadlines for programs. For the program itself, write the letter of intent (LOI; if necessary) and final deadline on the board, then set up subsidiary deadlines: this is when we need a go/no go decision; this is when we need a first draft; this is when we need the budget; this is when we need letters of support; and so forth.

The calendar will quickly fill up, but if you’re in a single, central location you can’t miss the deadlines looming down on you. You don’t have to check a webpage. It’s all in front of you, and if Steve walks by, you can grab him, point to the upcoming HRSA deadline and ask him where the hell those letters of support are. If Jessica wants to apply for a Dept. of Justice (DOJ) program, she can come by, pick up a marker, and decide where the deadlines should go, and you’ll be looking at each other and the board rather than a computer screen.

If you’re a giant organization with hundreds of people who need to review and edit applications, you’ll outgrow these tools. But if that’s the case, you’ll also want to hire dedicated IT people or technical consultants to set up these kinds of systems, because such systems are inherently complex and have lots of small user-interface issues that aren’t going to be easy to solve. But for most of us, some combination of a Spotlight-like system, a whiteboard, institutional memory, a subscription to the Seliger Funding Report, and a calendar will probably suffice.

If Joe writes back to say what, if anything, he’s done, I’ll post his experiences as an edit to this post.