Streamlining Basics – Project Streamline Essentials for New Grantmakers (and Everybody!)
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 tackle the following topics:
- What is Project Streamline and Where’d it Come From?
- Wearing the Streamlining Goggles – Four Streamlining Principles (today’s blog!)
- Right-sizing Application and Reporting
- Budgets and Financial Reporting
- Making Reporting Mean More
- Online Systems
- Getting Started With a Streamlining Process
Wearing the Streamlining Goggles – Four Streamlining Principles
At the beginning of Project Streamline, we had a short-lived, but beautiful dream (ie: delusion) that we could clearly define the problem, create a set of sensible standards for what grantmakers should do differently, and voila – streamlined application and reporting practices would follow! In fact, as you almost certainly know, grantmakers each have their histories, their personalities, their idiosyncrasies, and their nuanced reasons for doing things the way they do them. And even more importantly, funders do not have a market imperative to shift – their customers keep coming back, regardless of the extent of burdensome practice.
No matter how much better for nonprofits and even for the funder a new practice might be, introducing anything as a “must do” doesn’t go very far in this field.
So instead, we developed a set of high-level streamlining principles that any organization could use to examine its current practice and consider better practice. Once you put on these streamlining goggles, it should be easy to see opportunities to shift your practices and requirements to make them more sensible, aligned with your values, and straightforward for your grantseekers and yourselves. And for those who are interested in more specifics, we have specific recommendations for better practices.
Four Core Principles
Take a fresh look
Reduce the burden
Take a fresh look at information requirements: request only what is used in decision-making.
Application and reporting requirements can tend to pick up extras along the way, like a boat picks up barnacles as it sits in the water. With time, these added questions, attachments, and requirements can bog things down. If you are like many grantmakers, it’s been a while since you’ve gone through your application and reporting requirements line by line to make sure that your questions are actually eliciting information that you use to make decisions, build relationships, or otherwise inform your strategy.
Questions to ask:
- What does this question/requirement help us learn or do?
- Does this elicit the information we want, or does it consistently receive information that’s not quite on-point?
Right-size requirements: align application and reporting to the size and type of grant.
As we discussed in the last blog, right-sizing pertains to making sure that the requirements are appropriately sized for the grant. Right-sizing can mean ensuring that a small grant has a fairly minimal set of requirements, so that organizations aren’t spending more time and energy to apply for and report on the funds than they receive in actual funding (the net grant). It can also speak to having different types of requirements for different types of grants (project vs. general operating support vs. capital vs. capacity building). In other cases, grantmakers right-size so that their processes differ depending on the relationship with the grantee, so that a 20-year grantee is not still submitting exactly the same information each year as an organization that is just beginning its relationship with the funder.
Questions to ask:
- How long does this application or reporting requirement take our grantseekers/grantees to complete? What is the cost to them, and how does that eat into the funds we provide?
- Do our grants each require the same type of detail and due-diligence, regardless of size, type, and prior relationship with the grantseeker? Might we learn more by asking different types of questions?
Reduce the burden on grantseekers: minimize unnecessary and onerous practices.
In Drowning in Paperwork, we posited that grantmakers often outsource their administrative and evaluative burden to grantees. In the old days, this often took the form of requiring grantseekers to make copies and pay postage so that grantmakers didn’t need to do so. But it also shows up when funders require grantees to send materials that the grantmaker already has in their files, use a badly designed online system, collect and track data that is primarily useful only to the funder, and provide budgets and financial information in formats that are only convenient for the funder (and are often quite inconvenient for the grantee).
Questions to ask:
- Are we asking grantseekers to provide anything that we could get in another way?
- Do we know what parts of our process are burdensome for grantees – not for substantive reasons but because they are badly designed?
- Are we burdening grantseekers and grantees because we lack important knowledge (like how to read a nonprofit financial statement) or because we don’t want to pay for an intern?
Straightforward and clear communication with grantseekers.
At the end of the day, you may not be able to change all of your requirements, but you can surely make progress on how often, how consistently, and how transparently you communicate with your grantseekers and grantees. No surprise, this is the most important principle of all, because good communication covers for myriad other woes. The best communication is accurate, consistent across the foundation, timely, and two-way – with opportunities for grantees to provide feedback anonymously and/or when funding is not on the line.
Questions to ask:
- Are our requirements easy to understand, or do we get a lot of confused questions?
- Can a grantseeker reach a real person for a conversation if needed? And if so, how’s our customer service?
- Have we communicated why we have our requirements, what a grantseeker can expect from our process, and what we expect from them?
So there you have it – four easy-to-apply streamlining principles. Strap on your streamlining goggles and let us know what you see!
Stay tuned for our next edition of Streamlining Basics, focused on Right-sizing requirements. We will get more specific about how to think about matching your requirements to the size and type of grant.
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.