A Foundation Streamlines in Three Phases

When Cindy Rizzo considered streamlining at the Arcus Foundation, a private foundation with offices in New York, Michigan, and Cambridge, England, she knew she had the benefit of starting the process at a relatively young institution. “There was definite interest within the foundation, and we’re relatively new here, so nothing is set in stone yet,” says Rizzo.

Arcus’ streamlining efforts are part of a larger strategy to clarify and focus its programmatic goals. The foundation is streamlining in three phases: focusing on internal changes and its returning grantees, analyzing grants data in terms of “right-sizing,” and evaluating its reporting requirements.

As director of grantmaking at Arcus, Rizzo was inspired by Project Streamline’s Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose report and her prior experience at a community foundation. When she joined the staff, the foundation’s application processes seemed “unnecessarily cumbersome,” she says. To test her theory, Rizzo created a quick online survey for grantees and past applicants asking how they felt about each step of the application process and how it compared to other foundations.

The results? “Grantees asked us to streamline the process for organizations requesting continued funding,” says Rizzo.  “There was a lot of push back on our demographic profile form from our non-U.S. grantees and other grantees.” In comparison to the work required by other funders, grantees found the Arcus process about average.

With this feedback in mind, a small task force of program and grant management staff analyzed each form, question, and application step from the point of view of both grantseeker and foundation. They then discussed the results with the larger program department and brought recommendations to Arcus’ executive director, who made the final decisions.

“I initially wanted to go even more drastic,” says Rizzo. “We did have the option for eliminating letters of intent for returning grantees on the table, but in the end we decided it was helpful to have that short piece of writing to decide whether or not the organization should go on to the full proposal.”

The initial phase of the foundation’s streamlining efforts resulted in three major changes in its application process. First, all documents are now online and sent via email–hard copies are still accepted, but not required. In addition, all organizations funded within the past three years do not have to resubmit the IRS tax determination letter, proof of equal employment opportunity compliance, or the application’s organization description. “What we’re looking for in returning grantees is the thrust of the proposal,” says Rizzo. Finally, before writing a letter of intent, grantseekers must have a conversation with a program officer to discuss their proposal. This step was available to grantseekers before, but is now mandatory.

In the next planned phase, Arcus is partnering with a consultant firm to analyze grant application data around right-sizing. “Right now, it’s the exact same process for a $25K and $100K grant,” says Rizzo about grant application requirements. “Is that necessary?” Beyond grant dollar amount, Rizzo also wants to approach the foundation’s right-sizing in terms of the capacity of the organization applying. The Foundation’s high due-diligence standards and grant payments of $100,000 or more that are paid out only in shares of stock also have to be taken into account. “‘Fax one page for a $5,000 grant’–that’s not us,” says Rizzo. “But what I see is this continued willingness to come up with a process that is streamlined consistent with our high standards.”

Grantees agree. “When I say ‘Arcus’ process is easier,’ I don’t mean it’s less thoughtful; it’s that the expectations are extremely clear and straightforward,” says Andrea Potter of the Progessive Media Project. “Easier applications, when they’re ambiguous, can be a nightmare.” The Project’s development department also took advantage of the ability to email forms and discuss their grant proposal with several staff members at Arcus. “They were able to advise us up front on timing and priorities in funding,” says Potter, “which allowed us to focus on our programs and what would be best to send in the letter of intent.”

The long-term impact of the Arcus Foundation’s streamlining efforts won’t be known until all three phases are complete. However, Cindy Rizzo doesn’t feel the need to rush now that the groundwork has been laid. “We haven’t changed reporting practices yet, but we will once further streamlining of the application process is finished.”

Project Streamline