Collective Streamlining: the Cultural Data Project

Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose, Project Streamline’s study on improving grant application and reporting, identified some creative approaches funders have used to fundamentally change their application and reporting practices, both individually and collectively. On the collective side, one highlighted solution was centralized data repositories—storehouses of basic information put in place so that nonprofits don’t have to send the same information again and again to different grantmakers.

The exemplar of this approach: the Cultural Data Project.

Begun as a collaboration between Pennsylvania funders and arts groups and now supported and managed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Cultural Data Project operates in seven states and has engaged 148 grant programs and 5,300 arts organizations.

While the project seeks to generally build operational capacity and learning in and among arts and cultural organizations, it also has emerged as an effective tool for streamlining grant application processes. It does this by enabling arts organizations to fill out application forms for multiple funders and in turn providing standardized information to grantmakers to facilitate their evaluation of requests.

Partners say they’ve benefited from the process in a number of ways.

“Not only will it ultimately make our workload easier in terms of applying for and reporting on grants, but it will give us access to information about the field for benchmarking and other purposes,” says the development director of an arts organization participating in CDP.

At the California Community Foundation, Leslie Eto has used the Cultral Data Project system for the past six months. “It gives us a snapshot of financial information and audiences, number of interactions, and events, allowing us to track what’s going on with our grantees and measure growth across the board,” says Eto.

The initiative even helped the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, a founding organization of CDP, to streamline its own processes. “We previously had a budget format that we would ask applicants to fill out on their own,” says Brian Rodgers, deputy executive director of the Council. “Now we use a form that’s populated from the CDP. The applicant prints it out and combines it with a narrative to complete their proposal.”

Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, calls CDP “a great example of what happens when funding partners rally around a systemic problem. It will elevate the level of management, service, and funding in the nonprofit arts sector.”

Through a state-based growth strategy, the Cultural Data Project seeks to establish operations in as many as 22 states by the end of 2014, engaging up to 70 percent of all public and/or privately-funded cultural organizations throughout the country.

Beyond its streamlining benefits, the Cultural Data Project is also bringing arts funders together. “We’re seeing a wealth of activity around funders putting themselves in context of their peers in other states,” said CDP project director Neville Vaharkia. “They’re building a network.”

Project Streamline