Grantmaking service blueprints: Aligning people, process, and tech for impact

Service blueprints are an efficient and effective way to see how your people, processes and technology fit together to deliver your work. They're key for successful digital transition in grantmaking organizations.

Through 200+ philanthropy technology projects, we’ve helped 80+ grantmakers improve their grantmaking by redesigning their grantmaking processes and tech ecosystems. And the challenge that arises time and time again is how to tackle both technology and process when projects seem to require focussing on one thing at a time. We’ve heard grantmakers ask:

  1. How can we design process without knowing what tech can do? 
  2. How can we select tech without knowing what our process is?

To meet this challenge, we’ve started researching how emerging practices in other tech subsectors tackle this problem, and bringing those learnings to philanthropy tech. Across the board, empathy seems to be the magic ingredient: empathic approaches help organizations align people, process, and technology, and implement well-adopted technology that truly operationalize their strategy.

Using empathy to untangle people, process, and tech

Through our experience, we know every technology project is a change management project. People are a core part of the picture, and if their needs and goals aren’t carefully considered, low adoption of technology and processes will result in a less-than-ideal investment. 

We’ve also learned that human-centered design is critical for change management success. Human-centered design offers problem-solving methods centred in empathy. These help us untangle problems arising from people/roles vs. processes vs. technology, and align individual preferences and concerns to organizational goals, and ultimately deliver more successful process and technology projects.

The service blueprint allows us to understand how all these pieces work together to deliver optimal service and experience - and therefore, why we have them

Leaning into human-centred design, we now use service blueprints as a tool to help map, design and understand all the moving pieces behind an organization’s grantmaking - including your process, technology, internal staff roles and how all external stakeholders are impacted. 

What is a service blueprint?

Service blueprints come from the world of service design, a human-centered practise that looks at the whole system behind an organization’s services to improve service delivery, in line with the organization's values. This holistic analysis offers clarity into how people, process, and technology work together to create the overall service experience.

What is service design? (An adapted version of a graphic from A Guide to Service Blueprinting by Adaptive Path & Capital One.)

A service blueprint is a diagram that shows how all these pieces fit together through each phase of a process - at each step of a service, you’ll know exactly who is involved, what the end user is experiencing, what tools are involved, and goal we are trying to achieve. A blueprint also demands some level of evidence that each part of your service experience was successfully delivered, so that you know it has been well-designed. 

Here’s an example for a coffee shop, whose goal is to deliver delicious coffee and a smooth, friendly experience for their customers:

A sample service blueprint for a coffee shop.

By starting with the customer journey, the service blueprint frames everything from the end user’s experience. The evidence row shows clear deliverables/artifacts that support an optimal customer journey. Employee actions and technology are the frontstage pieces that the customer directly interacts with. Backstage actions and support processes are the behind-the-scenes systems and operations that support everything else. 

Instead of looking at tech, processes, and people separately, the service blueprint allows us to understand how all these pieces work together to deliver optimal service and experience - and therefore, why we have them. 

Knowing this can help the coffee shop owner to decide whether or not to procure new tools, where the process can be optimized, and how staff roles fit together. 

Use service blueprints to align grantmaking processes with strategic priorities

In many of our technology planning projects, grantmakers have asked us: “Should I redesign my grantmaking processes before or after technology selection?” The real answer is both, but at different levels of detail

Before choosing your technology you need an overview of your processes and people, but examining the details of every role and every piece of data can be overwhelming. It can also distract from the bigger picture: what’s important is knowing which broad process pieces are working, which ones need improvement, and, crucially for grantmakers, how you can better align your process with your values.

Service blueprints are great for analysis at this level of detail. By offering a high-level overview of people and processes, service blueprints provide insight into what’s working, what’s not, and whether your process aligns with your values. With this insight, you can then prioritize grantmaking processes upfront, and explore technology tools that best enable processes to support your grantmaking strategy.

For example, an organization striving to be more grantee-centric might aim to reduce the workload pre-application and prioritize capacity-building activities post-award. These process priorities can then inform the technology they select. In this example, the organization may choose technology that has relationship management features to support their grantee-centric strategy.

Service blueprints vs. process mapping: choosing tech vs. implementing details

If you’ve used process mapping before, you may notice service blueprints seem similar: both have swim lanes for different parts of the organization and lines that connect interrelated parts. However, the different levels of detail offered by each method fulfill different purposes. While service blueprints offer a high-level overview to help prioritize the big picture, process mapping digs into the details to ensure that you’ve considered all roles, data, and use cases. One tool cannot replace the other.

Service blueprints are ideal when you’re choosing technology and want to consider process priorities but don’t want to get lost in the details. Process mapping is best for after you’ve selected your technology and need to prepare for implementation. Process mapping often happens in collaboration with the technology implementer.

This sounds great for service design… but how can I use service blueprints in grantmaking?

We know that grantmaking isn’t a commercial endeavour. In fact, Grantbook exists because it wants to help our sector address issues that don’t exist in other sectors. However, we are always curious about how emerging practices from other sectors can help us help grantmakers fulfill their mission. From our experience, we’ve come to realize that the grantmaking service blueprint are an imperative for any grantmaking technology project.

By applying the service blueprint to grantmaking, we’re better able to plan technology and processes that deliver on grantmakers’ strategic mandates. 

Adopting service design for the grantmaking sector.

In a grantmaking service blueprint, we break down each phase of the grantmaking process into its internal processes, tech tools, staff roles, and stakeholder interactions. Just like a typical service blueprints, this reveals how everything works together to create the overarching grantmaking service experience. This insight then allows us to optimize grantmaking for both internal staff and external stakeholders (i.e., grantees, funders, and partners), and to align technology, process, roles, and organizational structure/culture to build a grantmaking service that truly delivers on your strategic mandate.

In contrast to the coffee shop example, here’s what we would consider a grantmaking blueprint:

From their service blueprint, we learn the following about this hypothetical grantmaker’s technology needs:

  • In the LOI/pre-application stage, they need an events management tool that integrates with their website and Contact Relationship Management system (i.e., a database of contacts and organizations) so that internal staff can track attendees and manage relationships. Two-stage review is needed in the GMS (i.e. grants management system) to allow for tracking both LOIs and applications.
  • In the Application stage, we need tools for program staff and grantees to collaborate on the application - for example, an online document collaboration tool like Dropbox so that both parties can make comments and edits in real time.
  • External reviewers are involved so both the GMS and internal communication tools must allow for third-party user access; they’ll also need a calendar coordination tool (like Calendly) to book time with the review committee.
  • In the Post-award process, the team is highly relationship-driven, so program staff will need an easy way to take notes while on-site; integrated web forms can help with this by structuring note-taking and sending data straight into the GMS.
  • Learning and knowledge management are important for this organization, so internal knowledge management tools must sync up to new data from grantees that are collected by the GMS. They’ll also need a GMS with accessible APIs so that they can pipe data into their data visualization tools.

From this blueprint, we’ve gathered a wealth of information on how this organization works, how tools can support what they do and who is involved.

Service blueprints can support changing processes, revealing underlying tech needs

Service blueprints are a living document - they’ll change based on your needs. For example, let’s say that during a pre-technology selection process redesign, our hypothetical grantmaker has decided to be even more committee-driven and relationship-focused. They remove LOIs from the process entirely. 

In their grantmaking service blueprint, they’ve removed the LOI stage as well as the conference they typically hold. Instead, they’ve included a community consultation phase.

Here are the new implications:

  • An events management tool connected to a CRM is still needed, but two-stage application functionality isn’t required anymore in their GMS
  • An online webinar tool with strong engagement tools for attendees to interact with is required
  • Also, a role or a collection of roles is needed to identify who should be invited to the consultation and to keep this information updated in the CRM

From a few small tweaks in the blueprint, we gather so much information about what tools to keep, add or potentially drop. We also can identify the new roles and responsibilities that may be needed to make this a success.

Limitations and considerations

As stated earlier, service blueprints can’t replace process maps. Instead, they fulfill a different purpose, showing how all your process maps fit together at a higher level to deliver on your broader mission.

As we’ve engaged grantmakers with service design practices, one limitation we’ve encountered is the perplexing question: who is grantmaking trying ultimately to serve? 

In commercial sectors, the answer is more often than not “the customer”. Design serves as a differentiator, allowing organizations with better service design to capture and retain more customers. But in philanthropy, a sector already shaped by higher goals of altruism, there are many potential “customers”: the grantee, the ultimate beneficiary, or the amorphous concept of “impact”. 

Ambitious grantmakers that can meet this challenge will truly be able to leverage technology to deliver on strategic mandate.

Answering this question may allow us to design services that truly home in on the needs of the end user: enabling stronger grantees, helping beneficiaries graduate from services, or solving root problems at the heart of philanthropic causes.

Another consideration this blueprint may look very different for community foundations and DAF organizations that serve donors and fund advisers. These grantmaking subtypes will require further experimentation and research.

Lastly, a key challenge revealed by this kind of holistic analysis is that a single tool is not enough; multiple tools are needed for grantmakers to truly optimize their processes for the digital world. To build an integrated tech ecosystem that supports their work in this way, grantmakers may have to procure and implement tools in fairly quick succession. Thus, strong project prioritization, management and change management practices are key to success. Ambitious grantmakers that can meet this challenge will truly be able to leverage technology to deliver on strategic mandate.

Curious to learn more? 

These are questions we continue to explore in our practice and in partnership with the philanthropic sectors. We are always looking for curious collaborators and idealistic innovators - if you’d like to learn more about these practices, please let us know.

Maggie Cheung's headshot

Maggie Cheung

Design Consultant

Web & UX Design, Marketing Lead

Maggie is a digital designer and tech enthusiast passionate about leveraging technology to improve how we communicate, collaborate, and contribute to social change. She came to Grantbook with 3 years’ experience in digital design, producing websites and communications for small businesses, and a history of community involvement planning fundraisers and managing a youth development nonprofit in Markham.

At Grantbook, she helps grantmakers tell their impact stories through web design and data visualization, and develop the operational infrastructure to do so through digital and data strategy. Internally, she managers Grantbook’s marketing and communications.

She has a B.Sc. double-majoring in Cognitive Science (Computational Stream) and Psychology, where she developed a foundation in object-oriented programming and cross-disciplinary thinking. A highlight in her undergraduate degree was authoring a paper that draws on cognitive science, sociology, and theology to discuss charity as a practice for developing wisdom, especially in today’s meaning crisis (“Abandoning Agape: Charity as a Case Study for the Meaning Crisis”, available online or in this summary slideshow).

James Law

Director, Design & Foresight

Director, Design & Foresight

James Law has worked for 10 years in the social finance and social sectors, designing, exploring, and implementing technologies to help organizations activate mission and achieve impact.

He began working in lean non-profits, employing databases and constituent relationship management tools (CRM) to help track and aggregate data for land conservation and environmental protection. Moving into social finance, he managed the development of an application to administer community bonds and equity.

Moving to Grantbook in 2015, James dove head first into helping foundations—of all types—align on digital values, explore technology options, and select the best path forward. From there, he continued to explore solutions architecture and integrations, connecting best-in-class tools to meet the ideal needs of grantmakers, grantees, and all stakeholders. 

More recently James is investing in Grantbook’s use of service design tools—from personas to service blueprints—to increase resilience and reduce the risk of technology planning and adoption via human-centred thinking. He also helps rally and co-ordinate Grantbook’s new ideas and opportunities as philanthropy and technology change.