Government Grants Management: An Interview with eCivis

Tune in to this session on government grants management! OpenGrants Head of Growth, Kate Newton, got to sit down with Merril Oliver, Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Officer of eCivis, for a dive into their work with state, city, and local government. This conversation covers how government grant programs can transform their efficiency and effectiveness through modern SaaS products and automated tools.

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Kate Newton

Welcome and thank you for tuning into this session. If you’re here to learn about grants management and specifically in the government space, you’re in the right spot. My name is Kate Newton. I head up growth activities for OpenGrants, where we make grant funding easy for startups, small businesses and nonprofits specifically to discover grant funding, and also to connect you with experts to help you apply for grants.

But this grant funding space is big and there’s a kind of spectrum of activities. Our partner eCivis covers a different space which we’re excited to dive into. We have Merril Oliver here with us who is the executive vice president and chief customer officer at eCivis. Merril we’re super excited to chat with you and would love to start with just you introducing yourself and letting us know, why does eCivis exist?

Merril Oliver

Thank you, Kate, for inviting me to participate in an interview with you and share knowledge around grants and grants management. I’m always excited to talk about grants. I’m Merril Oliver. I am, as you mentioned, the executive vice president and chief customer officer for eCivis.

I’ve been with eCivis for five years. Prior to that, I spent many years in state and local government. I’m the former director of the Maryland governor’s grants office, the former deputy director of the office of management and budget for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. I’ve also done quite a bit of volunteering within the grants management arena.

So I’m the former three term president of the national grants management association. And I’ve also worked in local government as well in an office of management and budget and also managing grant dollars at the local government level as well.

Approximately 20 years ago actually more than 20 years ago now back in 2000 at the local government level a number of local government leaders got together and were talking about how difficult it was for them to access grant dollars.

They didn’t quite know where all the dollars were. And so they came together with some business partners and created eCivis, which then created a team to professionally curate grant opportunities across the government sector. What governments back then, and actually As they continue today they are still challenged with identifying funding opportunities that are in alignment with their policy goals and priorities.

And so eCivis over the past 20 years has refined that. So again, as I mentioned we have created a database of grant opportunities. That are professionally curated within the United States. It tracks the awards and also post award. Once you get the money, what do you do with it? How do you track it?

How do you look at the, your community based results? And so 20 years ago, that was the ecosystem that was evolving in which eCivis. Was trying to solve those problems.

Kate Newton

I would love to dive into who specifically we’re talking about is the ideal kind of client for eCivis. This who’s I guess struggled with this the most. And maybe it’s changed a bit.

Merril Oliver

Yeah. So as I mentioned we have evolved. So we address the we’re purpose built for state and local government. That is our sweet spot. We have a number of former government professionals on our team that really understand the nature of doing business.

Within government, how government operates, how we look at funding streams and how we can achieve efficiencies. So the entire government space external to the federal government. Is our sweet spot. They are our customer. And we have evolved from that one solution of finding opportunities, branching out to full life cycle grants management, as well as cost allocation and indirect cost rate calculation software.

So we are a SASS service. So that means we are software as a service commercial off the shelf purpose built for government by former government leaders. We also have certified grants management specialists on staff including myself. I am a certified grants management specialist who oversee the development of the product to ensure that all of the federal regulation, state and local regulation is incorporated into the process design and flow so that it makes it easier and ensures for our clients that they are in compliance with all of the strings that come attached to executing some of these grant programs.

Kate Newton

We’re talking cities and counties, would that be correct? And then other maybe discovered agencies?

Merril Oliver

Yes, absolutely. So in the the state space, we are positioned. We are state government wide in Arizona, in Rhode Island in the government of the Virgin islands. Just to name a few. And then we also are multiple state agency wide in several states, Indiana, Kansas, Georgia, California, just to name a few.

So we serve more than a thousand units of government across the country. We were also in local units of government. So cities, counties, municipalities, as you mentioned. And some of them for example, Los Angeles, their budget alone is equal to, or greater than many of our smaller states.

Yes, they’re operating in a very complex environment. And our solution provides a platform that eases that direct line of site across all of the agencies or within the specific. Government department over program financials because I think. Often what gets lost in translation when you’re talking about grants and grants management?

Because it is a source of funds typically the main focus remains on the dollars tracking the dollars, but really the main focus. Is and should be the program and the program outcomes. And it should be community based. What are those dollars doing for the communities and how are you making a difference in the communities and the eCivis?

This product gives you. Platform, it gives you that not just the bird’s eye view, but it also digs in deep so that you can use multiple performance tracking tools within eCivis so that you can look at well in, in this particular city, have you reduced juvenile recidivism and. The dollars that were spent on on some health programs, did that have an overall impact, did asthma, for instance childhood asthma did you see reduced number of cases in the city?

And of course, as we are seeing now with COVID how. How did that money impact the community? How did it reduce the number of cases? How many people received their vaccines? How many hospitals received the appropriate amount of equipment so that they could meet the community need?

Kate Newton

It’s bringing it back to those original goals, which of course feels so intuitive that’s what we would be focusing on.

But when you get into Albany, nitty gritty kind of bureaucracy of it might not be very easy for any particular, agency to do. I’d love to see, What the processes from start. So let’s say, I’m a city, what kind of problems are popping up where I’m looking for someone like ECI this and I’m starting to engage with ECI this, and then what are your first steps in evaluating, what specifically you’re going to be helping with?

Merril Oliver

Yes, absolutely. So typically most government agencies and units of government. When they are receiving their grant dollars and they’re tracking their grant dollars, it’s typically done in spreadsheets. And so we know that alone, while it seems to be automated, it’s not it. Puts us at risk of audit findings just around error.

The federal government and even a lot of the foundation funds now, because they’re leveraging all these dollars are being leveraged with each other. They are tracking waste fraud. Error and abuse and they’re tracking the program outcome. So that becomes very difficult when you’re trying to track this kind of information across government functional areas.

As well as different government program areas. We are designed to come in and alleviate all of those processes. So it’s standardized across the programs it’s across the. Departments with within that unit of government or it is standardized within that specific department.

What that allows you to do, of course, is become more cognizant and compliant of executing based on your policy goal, that your government’s policy goals and priorities, and many of our customers on average are experiencing a 20% increase in effectiveness or what you could say is you could translate that into 20% of efficiencies.

You can calculate that as a cost savings, or you can actually allocate that 20% and redirect it to other. Program areas all based on providing an automated format to manage the entire ecosystem. We also have some clients that actually report an 83% increase in productivity which also calculates to a cost savings and efficiency savings.

So again, it. It all comes down to not just tracking your finances. It really is about tracking. What are you doing with those dollars and how it’s benefiting your communities. And then how are you reporting that up to your funders and how are you reporting it out to the community and the ECI, this product?

Provides a one stop shop to address all of that within the system. So you can generate reports that are community or citizen centric. If you will, you can look at what has been occurring at that community level? Whether it is the state providing funding for the different localities within the state and the impact that those localities are able to create or write down at that micro level.

At the, in the community, as I had mentioned earlier, what’s going on with health issues, what’s going on with education and how that grant money has been utilized to make a positive difference.

Kate Newton

Because if you don’t have that data, making decisions about what programs to fund in the future is not, it’s not really based on science at that point.

You could say something might look really good on paper. We spent $2 million on education in this space, and those seemed like the right organizations. But if you didn’t track. The output of that, then you’re not kinda yes. Which completely makes sense. And I think something you mentioned earlier really struck home with me.

Before I worked with OpenGrants, I worked in Silicon valley for a while, mainly with tech startups and not so much with government. And now that I’m introducing more with government, that the idea that it’s being deployed on a spreadsheet and that we’re using, maybe an Excel sheet to track where somebody’s going and you’re thinking.

That’s probably, that’s not a good enough tool, we’re using maybe some outdated, software to, to really be able to look. Data. And so that, that really hit home with me. Do you find that’s one of the primary challenges that you see, like the main challenges that agencies are just maybe just don’t have the tools to make these decisions?

Merril Oliver

There’s a kinda primary one yes. I would say it’s a combination of they don’t always have access to the tools and they don’t have capacity. So governments operate on budgets that are very trim. And they, they don’t have unlimited resources and they are, and I think we experienced that through the pandemic that governments did step up.

But it was a very painful process for them. Of the compa the capacity constraints that have occurred over time with investments going into government and the decisions that they are having to make and what a, an automated tool can do for you, especially in the, what I love about grants is that it gives you that big bird’s eye view of what actually is going on within that unit of government, what is the context in which it is having to operate and how can you.

Help them tell the story of what they are doing with their dollars. It’s not just about compliance. I will say that all of the compliance requirements are built in to the east of this system. We go through great pains. We review. We have as I mentioned, certified grants management specialists on staff that actually walk through all of the task pages to ensure that they are in alignment with all of the compliance requirements.

But we want to help governments tell their story. And it’s not just about, we spent 20 million on fixing a problem. We spent 20 million on building this bridge. It’s telling the story of. We invested cause we’re getting some infrastructure money coming out. Now we invested in our roads and bridges infrastructure.

And what it has done is decrease our our citizens burden in their commute. It’s decreased commute times. Increased the flow of the economy because the roads are moving more quickly, and more efficiently. So it is really expanding your thought process on looking at the policy goals and priorities of each unit of government.

And they can track all of that within the system.

Kate Newton

Yeah, the goal is not the bridge. The goal is the easier commuting and travel time of people. Yeah. Completely makes sense. Is there a favorite example that you like to tell, like a specific story that, you all have been involved in?

Merril Oliver

There’s many, I think the libraries using libraries as in, in Arizona, for example, there’s a program where they were using libraries to as a multipurpose facility to meet community needs. Some of the at risk population were able to hold their meetings there.

Other services were being provided through the library, so it wasn’t just about. Providing traditional library services, which they’re receiving funding for, but it was also leveraging, how are we gonna use this for the benefit of the community? And really being very creative in what you’re doing because.

Governments are looking for money all of the time and funders want you to be competitive and they’re expecting you to be creative. So that tells us so you’re tracking where the dollars are going, you’re tracking outcomes. So that that. That community library that was being used to do health education in that immediate vicinity, they were noticing that, more people were going to their doctor and they’re seeing less ER visits and those kinds of things.

So I, I think. Grants across the entire spectrum because they hit on so many areas of need. That’s, what’s so exciting to be in the grants arena and all communities have needs. They may be different in different parts of the country. They may be measured differently based on. How that particular region looks at their particular issue, but in this automated system, all of that is tracked your outcomes your outputs as well.

Because we wanna tie outputs to outcomes. Which is very critical for a funding agency and it increases the recipient’s competitive value when they’re going after grant dollars. It also creates an environment where you are. Tracking your expenditures, your financials in a compliant way, which also increases your competitive value.

So when you apply for a grant you can tell your funding agency or your funder that not only do we have a team. An efficient team working on program delivery, but we utilize an automated system that tracks the program attracts the financials. It ties it back to policy goals and priorities.

You can generate the reports that are important to citizens your legislature and so on your government leaders. So that’s, what’s so exciting.

Kate Newton

Yeah, no, that’s excellent. And I think, you’ve really touched on how this type of technology can transform, this entire process. Where do you see this evolving in the next, five or 10 years?

Is there a way you see this. Going even further or maybe just becoming more common.

Merril Oliver

I think we’re already seeing that it is becoming more common and I do believe we will get to a point that units of government will not only be utilizing. An eCivis product a grants, an automated grants management system product, but they’ll be able to better communicate with each other, which we’re already providing that platform.

So when those funds are. Flowed from the federal government down to state government. And then out into the local jurisdictions and the communities, it provides that communication platform already. And, I think at a certain point we will probably see all the tiers of government, not just communicating.

Vertically, but we’ll be able to see them communicating horizontally and working more collaboratively together across the entire country to achieve a lot of these policy goals and priorities. And we know that not all areas of the country have the same policy, goals and priorities, but there are so many similar.

About driving the needs for citizens elevating that up and addressing those needs.

Kate Newton

Absolutely. You can look at, not only what might benefit my community, what worked for this community similar to mine in different part of the country.

Merril Oliver

Absolutely. And we do actually we have within our pre-award product. We’ve already started that by pulling down previously funded applications, successful applications into the product. So that folks that are applying for the same. Grant program. If it’s a repetitive grant program, they’re able to use that previously funded application for modeling purposes.

So it, again, it, we’re starting to see this emergence of cross collaboration across the entire country. And that’s, what’s really that’s, what’s really exciting. We won’t see so much silo within governments. We’ll see that community collaboration and of course who’s benefiting it’s, it’s our citizens and our constituents that are really benefiting because after all it’s their taxpayer dollars, with federally funded programs and even state and local government funded programs. We see more and we work more with the federally funded programs that are flowing down. But yes, it’s incumbent upon units of government to ensure that their. Taxpayers, their federal income taxpayers are receiving the highest rate of return that they possibly can.

And one of the few ways to do that is to increase the amount of federal grant dollars coming into that community.

Kate Newton

Everyone has a vested interest in that type of collaboration. Yes. Yes. This has been great. I have a couple more for you. One question I love to ask just especially I think in the government space are are there any myths that you hear a lot about government funding or this space that you wanna debunk?

Merril Oliver

Yes. Often grants, people tend to think of it as free. It is not free money. Grants by nature are financial assistance for the purpose of meeting public. Good. And my advice always to units of government at all the tiers is to look at when you’re going after these grant dollars. Are you tying back that grant program to your policy goals and priorities?

Because if you’re not, you probably won’t be successful executing that grant program, but if you are You can really make a significant positive impact for your community and using eCivis, you can measure it. You can issue the reports. You can put out publication, ready, charts and graphs that really demonstrate how you’re making a difference for your community.

Kate Newton

A good one. We hear the the free money one a lot as well. And that’s definitely…

Merril Oliver

it is not free money. Yeah, it’s a lot of work really does go into executing grant programs and you really have to go through a SWOT analysis. Are you ready?

And are you capable of executing a grant program and driving positive? Direct measurable results for your community when you are accepting that award.

Kate Newton

Yeah, certainly a lot of benefits and pros to, to grant funding and just not free. Yeah. yeah. Yep. That’s right. Yeah. No love that would love to ask just what calls you to this work?

What’s your favorite part of your job? My favorite part of the job is just talking to everyone about what’s going on in their community, how grants are making a difference how you’re measuring it. I fell into this work by accident. Wow. Gosh, more than 20 years ago. And I got so excited about it.

I stuck with it, I had a conversation with a governor once and he said, Merril grants are so boring. No governor, no, they’re not at all. And For government budgets, especially at the state government level. We’re seeing that federal grant dollars account for anywhere between 30 and 60% of the overall budget, but it, wow.

Yes, but it’s all community. It’s driving impact for the community. And that’s what I really and when you walk outside your door, you look at your trash removal. There’s EPA grants that help with that. And there are, for your roads, it’s transportation dollars.

When you see work on a bridge, Quite often that’s funded with grant dollars. So you see it everywhere. It’s all over. Yeah, it is. And that’s, what’s so exciting. So you become a Jack of all trades and interested in just about every topic area within your community.

Kate Newton

Thank you Merril I really learned a lot from answering these questions and it enjoyed our conversation. I think we covered a lot. Is there anything that we didn’t touch on that you. You wanna talk about?

I would just invite everyone who’s viewing this to look at what grants are funding within their own community and see where they might be of help and reaching out to support our government workforce and a big shout out to our government workforce. And I’m a former government employee myself. Thank you for your service. It’s a big job. It is. Sure.

Kate Newton

Yeah. Thank you so much for chatting with me. For those tuning in we’ll have some helpful links, below here and definitely a way to go learn more about eCivis, but thank you for chatting with me today. Really appreciate it.

Merril Oliver

Thank you, Kate.