Dear Dr. Streamline:
I don’t understand what’s so awful about budget templates! We make grants to a wide range of nonprofits and require them to put their financial information into our template, which has about 20 categories. The big ones have financial and grantwriting staff who can easily use our template to communicate about their budget and finances. And the small ones – well, they don’t have good budgeting systems of their own, so I think we’re helping them out by providing a format.
More importantly, we need these templates so that we can compare all of our grantseekers’ budgets in a format that’s apples to apples. If we didn’t do this, we’d be looking at all sorts of different layouts and line items.
So why does Project Streamline keep asserting that it’s better to take grantee budgets and financial information in their original format?
The issues you raise in your letter are ones that we hear a lot in streamlining headquarters. In fact, the question of whether or not to require budget and financial reporting templates was so tricky that even the team that assembled to write Project Streamline’s Guide to Budgets and Financial Reports couldn’t reach complete agreement.
But let me put it to you bluntly: detailed budget templates make extra work, create risk of error, mask capacity issues, and ignore the fact the nonprofits have and use financial systems that work for them. This is why Project Streamline recommends accepting budget and financial information in grantee formats.
Your grantseekers have their own financial management systems. They have ways of categorizing their finances that make sense to their own operations. (If they don’t, that’s a capacity issue and should be addressed with capacity building funding and/or technical assistance). The amount of time that it takes to “slice and dice” or squish financial information into new categories required by their funders adds up.
As one grantseeker put it:
“Any funder that requires the use of a proscribed template for reporting operating expense and revenue numbers tends to make our Finance people nervous. They spend so much time re-arranging numbers that they have to keep an extra excel spreadsheet as a guide to how they split up our audited financial data in order to fit the proscribed template.”
In Project Streamline’s soon-to-be-released report: Practices That Matter: Taking Stock of Streamlining, we learned that being able to submit financial information in formats authentic to their work is one of the things that makes the biggest difference to nonprofits.
So, as a grantmaker, what can you do to get good financial information and make good use of what you get? Here are a few suggestions:
- It’s completely fair to provide guidelines that require grantseeker budgets and financial information to include certain things that are important to you. You can also provide sample budgets in acceptable formats.
- For organizations large enough to be required to have an audit, you can review audited financials, which are in a consistent format.
- Know your red flags. Be sure that your staff are well-versed in nonprofit financials. You shouldn’t need to see something in a special format to be alerted to financial issues.
- Ask for more detail as needed.
And if your organization simply can’t drop the template? Then make sure it’s as reasonable as you can. A reasonable template has very few (5-7) broad categories that grantseekers can customize as needed to make them work. Just keep in mind that the more categories you specify, the more likely that your grantseekers will need to manipulate their financial information to make it fit. When you think about it, you probably want them spending their time on more mission-critical activities.
We’d love to hear how other foundations get good budget and financial information without the use of detailed templates! Share your strategies and stories with Dr. Streamline at firstname.lastname@example.org.