Kiwis tackle the tough questions at grants ‘muster’

Posted on 06 Mar 2024

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, SmartyGrants

Combo Wellington Muster pic
(L-R from top): SmartyGrants' Jodie Shanks and Jen Riley; views of the quirky QT Hotel; Cindy Nguyen of Palmerston North City Council with SmartyGrants' Alex McMillan (also bottom right), Gillian Tasker of Palmerston North City Council and Kev Carter, the community lead of grants and partnerships at Hastings District Council; Lotima Vaioleti of the Bay Trust with Jen Riley.

SmartyGrants’ leaders were blown away by the enthusiasm and expertise of New Zealand’s best grantmakers and not just because they hosted a two-day gathering in “windy” Wellington, aka Poneke in Maori.

Aussies and Kiwis have always gotten along, but not without a few cultural kinks, with the SmartyGrants hosts bemused to discover “musters” in NZ are more commonly associated with rugby gatherings.

But for the grant nerds in the room, talking funding, standardisation, and other best-practice grants issues was the sport they really wanted to play, apart from networking over drinks.

As with their fellow Australian grantmakers across the ditch, delegates were keen to discover the sweet spot – or “goldilocks zone”, especially when it came to standardisation, which is currently a very hot topic among governments on both sides of the Tasman.

The hope was that standardisation by funders could:

  • promote efficiency, transparency, and fairness
  • build capacity and create efficiencies for grant managers
  • more easily support grant applicants and grantees.

Delegates also learned about the latest developments in:

  • grantmaking best practice
  • useful tools and techniques in standardisation
  • how grantseekers and grantmakers can use SmartyFile
  • measuring outcomes and making the most of the SmartyGrants Outcomes Engine
  • working effectively with grantees and stakeholders
  • risk management, and
  • the SmartyGrants’ automated grants classification tool.

Among those present included more than a dozen district and regional councils, the country’s biggest community trusts and charity funders such as Freemasons NZ.

The February event was hosted at Wellington’s stylish and quirky art-filled QT Museum Hotel in the centre of the city.

Presenters included SmartyGrants’ managed services manager Alex McMillan talking about the trends in standardisation, chief impact officer Jen Riley discussing outcomes, and director of platform transformation Jodie Shanks revealing how to make the most of the grants platform’s tools.

Ms McMillan’s presentation on standardisation found a receptive audience, with one quipping, "If you brought up standardisation in grantmaking anywhere but this room everyone would fall asleep, but here? It's all we want to talk about."

And there were nods around the room when Ms McMillan declared: "Standardisation is never done. If it doesn't get reviewed, it will stop being standard. You've got to start doing it and not stop."

Ms McMillan said another delegate told her that her talk “had changed the way she thought about her role and the kind of work she was doing. This is exactly why we came.”

Delegates were keen to share “common interests and pain points”, discuss outcomes and evaluation, and learn more about timesaving templates in the SmartyGrants system, with one group forming an informal network on the spot.

Ms Shanks said the SmartyGrants team were impressed at the high levels of collaboration among New Zealand grantmakers, with many working across regions and organisations to adopt similar methods, build larger and connected grant programs, and to adopt the same kinds of tools to accelerate their work.

She believed that may have explained the keen interest in SmartyGrants’ suite of tools, especially those under development. Ms Shanks stressed there were a dozen tools already able to make the lives of funders easier and dovetail neatly into the standardisation push.

She discussed how fields, lists, templates, and forms could be used in the SmartyGrants ecosystem, using the Outcomes Engine to measure results, improvements to automated classification of grants using the “CLASSIE” taxonomy, making the most of the system’s reporting capabilities, and using SmartyFile to reduce the load on grantseekers’ applications.

“This Muster was full of New Zealand’s leading grantmakers representing some of the biggest councils, trusts and other funders, and from my conversations it’s clear that we all learnt a lot,” Ms Shanks said.

She expected that delegates at the latest Muster would be among beta testers of some of the newest tools given the excitement about the potential productivity gains.

“Musters are a rare opportunity for grantmakers to look behind the curtain to learn about the kinds of improvements that our software, data science and business teams are developing at our Melbourne headquarters,” she said.

Palmerston North City Council community development advisor Cindy Nguyen spoke to delegates about her organisation’s adoption of SmartyGrants Outcomes Engine system, which allows funders to measure grants through their chosen outcomes frameworks.

She said sharing that experience was also “the best way to improve our knowledge”.

But for her, the chance to mix with New Zealand’s leading grantmakers – all with the common goal of helping communities improve – was the highlight of the “awesome” event.

“I was filled with others’ experiences and was so happy to connect with them,” she said.

SmartyGrants chief impact officer Jen Riley said the event was full of “lightbulb moments”, pleasure at having a “safe space” to discuss grantmaking, and shock at the need to spend 10% of grant budgets on measuring and evaluating those grants.

She had no doubt that new and experienced grantmakers alike will have gained greater confidence about their abilities and knowledge from the Muster.

SmartyGrants will be hosting a series of future Grant Musters across the country to help grantmakers connect and keep up with trends.

The next will be a day-long event hosted in Brisbane, 9-5pm, Thursday, May 16 at the Punthill Springhill Hotel. The event is catered and includes networking drinks. More details here.

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