2017-09-18 reporting

Heads Up! Project Streamline Digs Into Reporting

Every day, thousands of grantees write thousands of reports to funders. They slice and dice their financials into designated formats as evidence that the grant money has (or has not) been spent properly. They write reams of poetic explanations for their outcomes and treatises on their “lessons learned.” According to calculations from the Center for Effective Philanthropy, grantees spend an average of eight hours writing reports each year for each of their funders. That time can really add up.

More concerning, nonprofits, by and large, do not find the reporting process to be particularly useful1. As one nonprofit leader commented:

“I really think the meaningful application and reporting process is an objective of funders, not nonprofits. The process is a means to an end for us, and there’s little that is going to make that more meaningful than just having time and money to focus on the work that drives impact.”

If reporting isn’t beneficial to grantees, how do we justify the time it takes? It must be a useful tool for funders – for learning, decision-making, and relationship building with grantees – right?

Here’s the kicker: funders are just as eager to make reporting more useful and less burdensome for grantees. But, when questioned about what they actually do with reports, funders with whom we spoke admitted not knowing exactly how to get there.  Many spend spending hours tracking them down, tie release of payments to receipt, and stash them away as part of the historical record. But, beyond this, what is the best case for reporting?

There’s simply a lot we don’t know about how funders think about reporting, and how that thinking could translate into a process that is meaningful to all.

PEAK Grantmaking’s Project Streamline is tackling reporting head on, and we need your help!  In the next two weeks, we’ll be sending a survey about reporting practice to PEAK’s membership, as well as out to the field more broadly. The survey will help us learn more about how grantmakers think about reporting’s purpose and utility, how they structure their requirements, and the various ways they use information from reports.

The survey is part of a project that will:

  1. Help understand and draw attention to the current state of reporting practice
  2. Raise awareness and encourage dialogue within foundations about the purpose of reporting and, when it makes sense, the benefits of streamlining the reporting process
  3. Provide clear guidelines for effective reporting,
  4. Highlight innovative, effective reporting practices that help funders and grantees achieve impact.

Since April, we’ve been poking around and interviewing folks who have a bird’s eye view on reporting practices, including folks from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), the National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP), Exponent Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the Fund for Shared Insight, the Foundation Center, the Council on Foundations, the Center for Evaluation Innovation, Mission Measurement, and a number of smart grantmakers.

We tested our Effective Practice Proposal with them: Reporting requirements should be intentionally aligned with the funder’s purpose, and right-sized accordingly. Information from reports should be used – and if it isn’t used, it shouldn’t be solicited.

From these early conversations, we’ve learned that reporting is a topic worth studying. For one thing, we don’t know how many or which grantmakers already act according to the Effective Practice Proposal above. And if a grantmaker wanted to improve their reporting practice, few resources are available to help. Those we identified (Social Profit Handbook, Project Streamline, peer-to-peer/collegial advice), while useful, were offered in an ad hoc manner. Finally, examples of innovative reporting practice – both in terms of what’s asked for from grantees and how funders use reports internally — well, they might be out there, but folks had trouble identifying them. Bottom line:  We have an opportunity here to get smarter about how reporting works now and how it could work better!

So, are you in?  Stay tuned for the Reporting Survey, coming soon to an inbox near you.

 

 

1. According to research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy and prior studies by Project Streamline

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.