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PEAK Grantmaking

Online Systems

Streamlining Basics Series – Project Streamline Essentials for New Grantmakers (and Everybody!)

What do you know about streamlining your grantmaking? If you are new to the field, your answer might be nothing. And even if you’ve been in your role for a while, there are a lot of field trends, best practices, and hot new things to pay attention to in the philanthropic sector. It’s possible that these ideas haven’t caught your attention.

So let us (re) introduce Project Streamline!

This series of blogs will remind you of Project Streamline’s diagnosis of our field’s application and reporting challenges, streamlining’s core principles, and practical recommendations for good practice.

Streamlining Basics blogs will tackle the following topics:

Online Systems

Project Streamline’s Guide to Online Systems was initially developed back when online grantmaking and grants management systems were new enough that it was not uncommon to encounter funders who still required hard-copies of applications, reports, or both.

The good news: Although some holdouts remain, most funders have shifted to accepting applications and reports via online grantmaking systems (or by email). Indeed, moving to an online system or – as is common now – migrating to a new or better grantmaking system tends to be a point for reflection and streamlining for many grantmakers.

More good news: Grants management and online grantmaking systems have improved a lot! According to Idealware, which publishes the extremely detailed and very useful A Consumers Guide to Grants Management Systems with the support of PEAK Grantmaking and Technology Affinity Group, the field of grants management systems has evolved significantly even since 2013.

But here’s the bad news: Online grantmaking systems have introduced their own set of issues for grantseekers, and some of them have made nonprofits long for the good ol’ days of submitting ten hard copies1. Just for example, I recently completed an online application that required me to enter each piece of board member information into a separate text box, so that I was unable to cut and paste from my standard Word document containing this information. A task that should have taken 30 seconds was instead a 10-minute chore.

Here’s a dirty dozen of glitches, design flaws, and just plain thoughtlessness that grantees encounter2. You might recognize some of these issues from your own grantmaking system – or from other online systems you interact with. Whether you are buying concert tickets or applying for a grant, an irritating online system can cause a lot of stress and waste a lot of time.

  1. Magical Mystery Tour: keeps you guessing about what’s next, by not allowing you review the full set of questions in advance.
  2. Only You: doesn’t allow multiple users or the ability to revisit responses.
  3. Ice Queen: suddenly freezes and must be rebooted, without saving your work.
  4. Character Assassin: has stringent, but secret, character limits.
  5. Lost Days: requires very cumbersome data input, such as forcing you to type every detail about your board members into separate boxes, so that nothing… nothing… can be cut and pasted.
  6. The Ugly: allows no formatting whatsoever.
  7. The Amnesiac: doesn’t save your work year to year… or between application and reporting.
  8. Both And: requires you to complete an online application… and print and deliver it too.
  9. Lipstick on a Pig: a perfectly functional online system with a poorly conceived and redundant set of questions.
  10. Wha?: tells you to do something, but then doesn’t allow you to do it (such as requiring a value to be entered into a field, but then not accepting that value).
  11. Rocket Science: requires you to watch a tutorial video before you are qualified to use the system.
  12. Talk to the Screen: serves as a gatekeeper and keeps you from reaching a real person.

Project Streamline developed its Guide to Online Systems ten years ago. Although much has changed, the basic essential features of good online systems are the same as they were back then.

The Guide asserts that online systems should be:

  • Usable: simple and intuitive for the end-user and your staff.
  • Clear: define and communicate expectations to grantseekers
  • Comprehensive: allow online submission for each stage, from LOI to final report.

The Guide lays out Essential Features and The Gold Standard. Essential Features are the minimum level of functionality that all online systems should provide. The guide proposes 17 basics, including items like the opportunity to review the full application in advance, storage and retrieval of past data, ability to save work and return to it, and ability to cut and paste text from Word documents. Gold Standard features (once rare but more common now) include things like advanced editing and formatting capabilities, collaboration functionality, and the ability for an applicant to see where their proposal is in the review process.

The Guide also makes it clear that the system’s technical functionality is only part of the issue. A poorly designed application is just as hard to complete online as it is on paper (see #9 above). Before and after launching an online system, grantmakers should ensure that they have their requirements the way they want them by taking a fresh look at information needs. And, most important of all, funders must user-test their systems with actual nonprofit grantseekers before launching them and continue to seek feedback on their functionality.

Our hope is that funders will use Project Streamline’s Guide to Online Systems as a starting point for internal conversations about online grantmaking systems and discussions with vendors. For up-to-date and detailed information about myriad grants management systems – many of which include an online grantmaking capability – check out the Consumers Guide to Grants Management Systems. This latest report, released in 2016, reviews 29 different grants management systems, comparing them against a host of criteria. Their Vendor Product Update Supplement shares additional information from vendors about changes they make in between editions of the Consumers Guide.

Email us at to share your opinions, questions, or stories about your own experience with online systems.

1 Probably not really…
2 Originally developed for the blog “Online Systems: the Promise and the Peril” published in 2013.