Special Topics in Streamlining: Considerations for Community Foundations

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to host two streamlining workshops with members of the Council of Michigan Foundations.  On the second day, the crowd that greeted me at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s beautiful and unique office was composed entirely of community foundation staff. While community foundations have always been represented in Project Streamline’s research and workshops, I’d never facilitated a community-foundation-only workshop. It seemed an excellent opportunity to get some insight into the particular streamlining considerations and concerns faced by community foundations and other public foundations.

By and large, community foundations can streamline their grants processes just like any other grantmaker. They can take a fresh look at their requirements and ask themselves whether they use the information they collect. They can user-test their online systems so that the application process works smoothly for grantseekers. They can be sure that their budget and financial reporting requirements allow grantees to represent their information in their own, authentic categories. And they can certainly right-size applications and reporting requirements so that they make sense for the size and type of grant.

But community foundations have some special considerations. Here’s what the group highlighted as particular issues or tensions to navigate:

  1. Many Stakeholders: Community foundations and their many stakeholders are acutely conscious of the need to be careful stewards of community dollars. Engaging the board and many community committee members is essential to the mission of the community foundation. It can be hard to strike a balance between getting enough information to satisfy the various interests of different stakeholders and keeping the process streamlined for grantseekers.
  2. Diverse Donors, Diverse Requirements: Community foundations whose donor advised funds have competitive processes also need to think about how to talk with donors about streamlining. Many donors simply recommend organizations for funding and don’t want paperwork at all. But giving circles or other hosted funds might have requirements or processes that are less than streamlined. How does the community foundation raise donors’ awareness of the net grant and the idea of right sizing in a tactful and respectful way?
  3. Lean Staffing:  The third issue that the group mentioned was that many community foundations – like many private foundations – are small and have very few staff. They may be loath to invest in their own infrastructure and professional development and may feel less able to relieve the grantmaking burden for nonprofit partners. For example, if a community foundation doesn’t have a good copier and the part time staff to make copies, then grantee organizations might be required to submit multiple copies of proposals for reviewers. Often, staff don’t have a lot of expertise in finances and nonprofit budgets, so require templates and budget forms so that categories are consistent across proposals.


From a community foundation application…

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In my experience, community foundations are usually conscientious about keeping their applications and reporting requirements sensible and streamlined. Because community foundations are embedded in communities, they have an immediate interest in the health of local nonprofits. And, as fundraisers themselves, community foundation staff have considerable empathy for what it takes for nonprofits to raise money. Still, as the issues raised by the participants in my workshop illustrate, community foundations have some special considerations when it comes to streamlining.

At the same time, community foundations often give small grants to small community organizations.  These grassroots nonprofit organizations tend to have very low staff capacity and may be largely volunteer-run. So time spent in application and reporting translates into time and money away from mission-based work. Even though streamlining may encounter some barriers, community foundations have great incentive to streamline, because having a sensible process really matters for small, community nonprofits.

Tell us about your experiences with streamlining at a community foundation!  What resonates (or not) from this blog post? 

Jessica Bearman

Jessica Bearman works with foundations and other mission-based organizations, focusing on organization development, facilitation, and R&D to help them become more intentional, effective, and responsive to the communities that they serve. She is also known as Dr. Streamline. Follow her on Twitter @jbearwoman.

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