Strategic Management for Grantors and Philanthropists

I have been involved with Grants Management for many years, and was intimately involved with the architecture and development of the SAP Grants Management module, both as an architect and a developer at the SAP Labs public sector group. I have also worked at Duke University, and grew up in an academic environment as my father was an engineering professor who received research grants. As a Senior Manager at the IT consulting firm BearingPoint (Formerly KPMG) I am well versed with the state-of-the-art when it comes to maximizing corporate efficiencies. Over time it has become obvious to me that the current methods by which granting agencies determine what they should fund are fundamentally flawed. Below, I will outline a radically different approach and one that I believe is sorely needed.

Why give money anyway?

This of course is a rhetorical question. The obvious answer is that you want to achieve something. I think most grantors and philanthropists have some idea as to what they might like to achieve, such as improving the plight of women or curing a disease, but have no idea how to get there. If someone sends a grantor a proposal from a prestigious university claiming to be doing research to solve/cure/advance their cause, they are considered for funding. For U.S. federal grants, researchers use and hunt for something to apply for. There is no method to allow the research community to have any real influence over the opportunities that are available, nor a way for the granting organizations to consider areas that the international scientific community feels would advance their cause.

If you were running a large corporation and wanted to meet some strategic goal with some degree of certainty, you would likely turn to SEM or Strategic Enterprise Management techniques, select key performance indicators (KPI) for tracking performance, and then perform activities that are likely to achieve these goals. These can also be applied to Grants management, and we will explore this below after taking looking at another important concept -- ideas.


Breakthroughs are often the results of seemingly unrelated research. Consider a database of ideas that are worthy ideas contributed by people all over the world. These would be small, discrete things like "determine the incidence of disease xxx" or "sequence the genome of deep sea thermal vent organisms" or "determine the maximal design of flat plate solar collectors in a specific climate". Each idea would have a description, along with a list of key performance indicators, and the likely funding requirements.

Key Performance Indicators

The development of useful KPI's is extremely important. Some things are easy, like "median life span", "infant mortality", "literacy rate" "annual MJ energy usage per capita" while others like "quality of life" or "advance understanding" are problematic to define and measure. However, metrics can be developed to measure anything, and can be incrementally improved over time.

New KPI's would be proposed by the community, and ongoing discussions would lead to solutions to the more problematic ones.

Relating Ideas to KPI

Each idea contributed by the world wide community is likely to affect multiple KPI. You want the international community to be able to vote or "moderate" these KPI's up or down to arrive at a global consensus. For example, consider the idea:
"Determine the distribution of erect male organ diameters in geographical region xxx" which as been assigned these KPI's

  1. Median family size (+8)
  2. Unplanned pregnancies (+10)
  3. Median life span (+2)

Initially, the person that set up the KPI's (perhaps the idea author who was concerned about unusual regional condom breakage rates and the wisdom of "one size fits all") assigns the numbers in brackets above, on a scale of one to ten based on how they feel it will promote the KPI. However, the world community is free to moderate these factors up or down. So for the sake of argument, let's say that in the example above, median life span gets moderated up to (+3) because it is generally believed that unwanted pregnancies, especially in very young women, is significant, but median family size gets moderated down to (+4) because abortions are common.

We now have an idea, KPI's that are likely to be affected by the results of research on the idea, and an international consensus of the relationship between ideas and their repercussions.

Adding a Geographical Layer

The example above is dependent on geography, especially if it arose because of an unusually condom breakage rate in region xxx. By adding a region tag allows the idea to have a regional KPI ranking, to be tagged as universally applicable. In some case, ideas like producing audio material for teaching health skills to tribal women somewhere, or optimizing the design of flat plate solar collectors for northern temperate climates, are only applicable to a specific region.

The Grantor / Philanthropist Profile

Each granting organization has goals. Let's assume that your high level goal or program is to "promote the quality of women in region xxx". You might create a profile that listed something like this:

KPI / Ranking
"Female Literacy rate" +3
"Unplanned pregnancies" +8
"Median family income" +2

The goal here is do some serious thinking about the kinds of changes that might achieve your objectives. You could also have multiple programs and have a separate groupings of KPI's for each.

Determining what to fund

The next step is purely mathematical. The system would look through all the ideas, check the geographic limits, and propose a selection of ideas that are most likely to achieve the overall goal, and then rank them by estimated costs. The results could, at times, be shocking. For example, the "male organ size" idea proposed by an Indian researcher in response to alarming breakage statistics in a specific region of the country, and which cold be carried out with a simple survey of medical doctors at low cost -- might just be at the top of the list. It is unlikely that the granting organization / foundation would have though of this one in a thousand years -- more likely they would have funded an agency that wanted to purchase more condoms or some novel distribution technique like hanging them in baskets under trees.

Who does the research?

Researchers around the world would subscribe to research ideas. When a grantor selects the ideas they want to fund, they would see a list of people that are interested in performing the research or monitoring research in this area. Subscribers would be notified by e-mail, and the grantor and grantee could exchange proposals and responses.

What happens afterward?

All research commissioned should be entered into the public domain (not hostage to the journal publishing industry), and attached as PDF documents to the ideas database with a full text index.

The community would then be invited to peer review the material and make comments, which would be searchable. Further research on the idea would then have the benefit of all previous research. Ratings could just be a simple thumbs up or down.

Working with Federal Agencies

There are a number of initiatives in the USA to streamline the application for Federal Grants, but there is not much standardization in the private sector. Ideas like indirect costs, cost sharing, effort certification could be standardized and it would be fairly easy to develop the forms necessary to allow researchers to satisfy reporting needs. Ultimately, the goal would be to be performance / results based and not worry too much about regulations. For example, if a researcher that planned 100% of his time ended up working part time instead, published a highly regarded paper on a shoestring budget -- should we care? Conversely, a researcher that consistently ends up with negative reviews of the published results -- the experiment was not designed properly or the data does not support the conclusions, would be unlikely to get further funding. Currently the accounting overhead for many federal grants is onerous for independent researchers, and occupies entire departments at many universities.

What are some of the obstacles ?

A system like this has the potential to redirect billions of research monies away from Universities and well known/published researchers and into the hands of brilliant and dedicated people everywhere, is a threat to the journal industry and threatens the ability to hoard intellectual property. Any time there are losers and large quantities of money at sake, there are powerful obstacles. I have discussed all these ideas with professors, and have received comments like: "I'd love to help in any way I can, but I can't use my name", or "stay under the radar and get it started with a grass roots movement before it is too late to stop" or "intellectual property is a big thing in our institution, the idea that all research papers paid with by government funded facilities should be available free is not going to go over well".

Most problems, like how to control the moderation process and avoid abuses have been solved by forums like Initially moderation would be human, and later it would be devolved to the community assign moderation points on a revolving fashion. Another alternate is to fund a position on an annual basis for scientists to be full time moderators.

The real obstacle is just time. Most people that are in a position to make this happen immediately, are busy making a living doing something else.

As an instrument of Social Policy

These same ideas can be applied to governance. The grantor is the government, which have funded programs like healthcare, functions like ambulance services and KPI's to measure their success. The KPI's could be "citizens served", "complaints resolved", "tons of wheat produced", "CO2 emission per capita".

Citizens would then propose additional programs (presumably the government would set them up initially) and governmental functions, and they would be ranked in importance. It would be then presented to the public as the optimum use of tax dollars. It would also be possible to show the relationship between extra services and higher taxes, and the converse; few services and lower tax and the resulting impact on KPI's of importance to the tax payer (perhaps waiting time at the motor vehicle registration office or hospital emergency ward.

A government program like "environmental monitoring of chloroform emissions in deep wells" associated with a KPI like "Cost per life saved" that ended up with a value like $800M / life" would be obvious candidates for elimination.

The programs themselves could be subject to moderation by the public. If health care is moderated up and agricultural is moderated down, perhaps a change in government priorities is in order -- or if it the consensus is not in the best interest of the people, then the government needs to explain and guide/lead the public towards a better mix.

What is next?

This is a long term project that is being developed slowly. The data dictionary and KPI's are coming along, but it is a back burner project. About three years of full time work is needed, which is about the time it took me to develop and lead the development of SAP Grants Management module.