Project Streamline was the precursor to what’s known as trust-based philanthropy. And right now we’re dealing with the aftermath of COVID, and lots of us are putting all kinds of changes in place that are very much oriented in trust-based philanthropy. But really, the seeds of that were sown in Project Streamline.
Director, Learning and Grant Operations, Surdna Foundation
25 YEARS OF PEAK
The Lasting Impact of
Now more than ever, grants managers are streamlining their application processes to meet the needs of grantees. The events of 2020, including the global coronavirus pandemic and the social uprisings following the death of George Floyd in the United States, have prompted organizations to revisit their grantmaking procedures, because communities need equitable funding—fast.
The idea of a more efficient process isn’t anything new. It’s something that grants professionals in the PEAK community have been discussing for more than 15 years. It’s an active conversation that has been central to the ongoing evolution of grants management and the field of philanthropy.
Like our founding story, the idea to streamline began when two people came together and said, “Yes.”
A Moment That Made Us
In 2004, a 15-minute meeting changed the trajectory of philanthropy when the head of grants management at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Richard Toth, met with the late president of The Foundation Center (now Candid), Sarah Engelhardt.
Sarah lamented to Richard about the challenges her organization faced. “We’re being funded by a hundred-and-some-odd different foundations, and every one of them has a different application form and a different report form,” she said. And Sarah wasn’t alone. Organizations across philanthropy were drowning in paperwork. So the question became, “What could grants managers do to improve their collective practices?”
Sarah suggested that the Grants Managers Network (GMN, now PEAK) bring people together to come up with a set of standards for foundations. Richard agreed that grants managers had the data and control over the process, and so they were well positioned to enact change. Their idea to bring the field together to alleviate the burden of the application process on grantees became known as Project Streamline.
Fun fact: Project Streamline was originally called the Grants Standards Project, which was a perfectly adequate name to describe the goal of the effort … but it just wasn’t catchy.
With the GMN board’s approval to pursue Project Streamline, Richard teamed up with consultant Jessica Bearman and the first GMN executive director and staff member, Michelle Greanias, to rally the field around the project.
For the next two years, Richard, Jessica, and Michelle made phone calls, facilitated conversations, and held meetings across the country. “It was truly a campaign, a movement, to get people to talk about it,” Richard said. The team brought eight national organizations together around a single issue. “It was this unprecedented consortium of organizations from the field that generally did not sit down and work together,” Jessica said.
Fun fact: Project Streamline brought together eight national organizations:
- Grants Managers Network
- Foundation Center
- Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
- Council on Foundations
- Forum of Regional Association of Grantmakers
- Association of Fundraising Professionals
- Association for Small Foundations
- National Council of Nonprofit Associations
A GMN team, including members Jonathan Goldberg, Leslie Silverman, and Teresa Crawford, led the charge by establishing a series of working groups to address specific issues within the grants process. Jonathan Goldberg, director of learning and grant operations at the Surdna Foundation, worked with a group focused on best practices for online applications, for example. Another group worked on grantee financials and what should be required for submission as part of the application process. The working groups concluded that grants managers could reduce the burden on grantees, especially under-resourced grantees, by eliminating unnecessary forms, paperwork, and requirements.
For the first time, the field began examining the grantmaking process from a grantee’s perspective. For Christopher Percopo, director of grants information and management at the Helmsley Charitable Trust, that meant being more intentional about the kinds of questions grantmakers were asking grant seekers.
“The way you make grants actually has an impact on the applicants and grantees and the way that they start building the relationship with you as a funder. And really, if you’re asking questions [on your forms], you should be using those questions for something,” Christopher said.
Through Project Streamline, GMN led an ongoing research effort that resulted in a practical set of grants management tools. “Project Streamline was this whole body of work, and it had a lot of tendrils,” Jessica said. Outputs included the Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose study and the follow-up Practices that Matter report. The community also developed guidebooks through a cross-disciplinary team of grantmakers, grant seekers, researchers, and lawyers. These resources became invaluable to grants managers. “It really gave me something to point to as we were building our processes,” Christopher said.
Fun fact: Jessica took on the persona of a character named Dr. Streamline, who responded to grantmaking efficiency questions from the community on the project’s blog.
The project also made bold recommendations to change the grants application process. “You shouldn’t have complex budget templates. You shouldn’t have a portion of your application that requires a typewriter. You shouldn’t ask for 10 copies,” Jessica said.
Beyond grants managers, Project Streamline garnered support across the sector. “I think it took GMN from being something very grants manager- [and] grants management staff-focused to being more about foundations and philanthropy,” said St. Luke’s Foundation Senior Grants Manager Kristen Summers.
Today, the legacy of Project Streamline lives on in our Narrow the Power Gap principle for Peak Grantmaking and is a core thread in the trust-based philanthropy movement. The COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest at the center of our lives have served as catalysts for new conversations around the grantmaking process.
“I think that there’s still really active work going on … particularly with just renewed attention in progressive foundations to equity and racial equity,” Jessica said. “I think there’s a real set of questions that funders are asking themselves about the extent to which their practices enable access or to the extent to which they are unintentionally putting up barriers to equitable access, and to what extent their practices reflect their commitment to equity.”
The priorities of today’s philanthropic sector are deeply rooted in Project Streamline: an idea planted by a pair of grantmaking leaders and nurtured by the PEAK community. Their vision has blossomed into a movement that transcends job titles and will undoubtedly guide us in the future.