Dear Dr. Streamline,
After responding to your survey about reporting practice in the field, I started thinking more critically about our foundation’s reporting practices. We developed the current set of requirements about ten years ago based on what we needed to know to determine if our grantees were succeeding with our funds.
At the moment, we require reports twice a year (six and 12 months from when the grant was made) from all grantees and we ask what seem to me to be fairly standard and reasonable questions about what happened, what went well, and what was learned, along with asking for financial information, of course. We also require written requests and financial information when a grantee needs to request permission for a variance of 10% in any given budget category from our template.
The problem is that once we receive these reports, I can’t honestly say that we do much with them. As grants manager, I make sure that we receive them in a timely manner (and believe me, that can take some legwork). The individual program officer reads them and [when applicable] authorizes the next payment for the grantee.
Should we be doing more? Should we be asking for less? And are we in line with the rest of the field? Thanks for any help you can provide, Dr. Streamline!
Questioning the Sacred Cow
The issues that you raise in your question are perfectly in line with the reporting research that PEAK Grantmaking’s Project Streamline has been conducting.
As you know, we’ve been in the process of inquiring into current reporting practice with the intent of documenting the way things are now, highlighting especially effective or innovative practice, and making recommendations to the field about sensible and streamlined grant reporting practice. Our findings will be shared via the PEAK Insight Journal, PEAK Grantmaking’s online journal focused on the “how” of grantmaking.
We have just released the first substantive article, sharing key findings about how reporting looks now. The good news for you is that you are not out-of-line with colleagues. The bad news is that common practice isn’t always thoughtful or intentional practice. Let’s look at just a few places where the data from your peers can shed light on your practice:
Reporting frequency: Most funders responding to our survey said they require reports at least once per year (annual reports were required frequently or always by nearly 70% of survey respondents). Meanwhile, bi-annual reporting was also fairly common – required frequently or always by 34% of respondents.
So what? Project Streamline maintains that annual reporting should be the default expectation, unless a high-risk grant makes more frequent formal contact desirable.
Funder-driven deadlines: You mentioned that you set deadlines for your grantees’ reports. That’s not unusual. Due dates for reports tended to be designated by the grantmakers in our survey sample (for 65% of respondents) and were negotiated with the grantee only 10% of the time. Many grantmakers shared in the survey that they are more flexible than grantees might think, and are willing to grant extensions when asked.
So what? Project Streamline’s guideline is to negotiate reporting deadlines with grantees so that they are reporting at meaningful points in their own work, rather than on a funder-driven schedule that doesn’t align with their own.
Financial information and variance reporting: Most (90%) of your colleagues, like you, require a financial report and many are similarly concerned when there is variance in the budget – like when money is moved from one budget category to another. Turns out that there’s not much standard practice in terms of what degree of variance requires formal reporting. For most funders, it seems to be between 5% or 20% in a budget line item, but that’s quite a wide range.
So what? For nonprofits with multiple funders, it can be very time-consuming to respond to the idiosyncratic requirements of each funder.
Reports could be doing more: You wrote that you don’t do a whole lot with the reports you receive. Unfortunately, that’s also pretty common. Many respondents said that they struggle to use reports in meaningful ways. For the most part, reports default into “compliance tools” (did the grantee do what they said they’d do?). They are also almost always valued as formal documentation (we need the information for our files in case our Program Officer leaves). Because reports are often read by one or two people, the lessons and data they contain may only contribute to the learning of an individual program officer.
So what? Too often, the actual use of reports stands in stark contrast to (even contradicts?) funders’ stated aspirations for how they’d like to use grant reports – for learning, strategy development, and to support grantees.
Time costs for funders: You mentioned in a parenthetical that tracking down reports can take a lot of legwork! Your colleagues shared that they have the same experience. Although most don’t know exactly how much time they spend hounding grantees to complete reports, about half said they spend between one and five hours each month, 17% said they spend six to ten hours, and 10% said that they spend 10-15 hours tracking down reports monthly. For the remainder, it varied or they just didn’t know.
So what? Spending time getting reports in the door is fine – as long as those reports are useful! If not, perhaps that time could be better spent in activities that build relationships and knowledge!
Check out the article on the Current State of Reporting for more! Over the next few weeks, you’ll see a steady flow of articles about reporting from PEAK Grantmaking and Project Streamline. We’ll be reporting next on all we learned about grantmakers’ aspirations for reporting. We will even profile a few of your colleagues who are experimenting and innovating to make those aspirations a reality!
Dr. Streamline is Jessica Bearman of Bearman Consulting, LLC. She provides facilitation, organization development, and research and development to help grantmakers and other mission-focused organizations align strategy, practice, and culture for greater effectiveness, equity, and joy.