A Nonprofit Executive Responds to Project Streamline’s Recommendations

Soon after Karen Goldman, the director of foundation relations and donor communications at the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation (the non-lobbying branch of the ACLU), read Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose, she sent a memo about the report to ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, offering a sober and insightful assessment of Project Streamline’s core recommendations. Her take—which draws from her experience with foundations over the course of her career but doesn’t, she points out, necessarily reflect the views of the ACLU—adds a seasoned voice to a growing conversation about improving philanthropy’s system of grant application and reporting.

For starters, Goldman says she sees an important opening in Project Streamline’s report and overall effort. “I don’t think we’ve done a fantastic job in the field of working through the grant process and what realistic expectations should be of both grantmaker and grantee,” she says. “The report is a wonderful assessment of the current state of foundation grantmaking, with an honest look at the mistrust and, in some cases, bad tradition that has led to where we are now. It will definitely spark ongoing dialogue.”

Goldman offers some critical perspectives—both affirming and cautionary—on a few of Project Streamline’s key recommendations.

On the recommendation to “right-size grant expectations,” Goldman especially sees the need for a streamlined application and reporting form for small grants. “I always say you have to go through way more hoops for smaller grants,” she says. “Smaller funders can ask really unique questions, and I empathize because, to them, they might be big grants, and their boards have certain expectations. But it certainly would relieve us of a good part of time to reuse work from different funders instead of responding to umpteen unique questions.”

On the recommendation to “relieve the burden on grantees,” Goldman endorses the overall notion but is not convinced that foundations are in the best position to take it on. “While it’s totally the right idea,” she says, “the problem is that the foundation sector is already getting bad press for including administrative costs as part of its annual pay-out requirements. If foundations end up spending more of their money on administration, then either there will be even less money for grantmaking…or they will have to increase the percentage that they have to give out every year.” Goldman also acknowledged the effect taking back the burden could have on smaller foundations because of their limited resources. In light of these issues, Goldman suggests that a third party—such as the Foundation Center or Regional Associations of Grantmakers—might be better able to take back some of the administrative work. “Foundations could pay on a sliding scale for this resource,” Goldman says. “It would eliminate a lot of onerous processes for grantees and grantors alike.”

On the recommendation for foundations to “begin from zero” in assessing the information needed for grantmaking decisions, Goldman wonders if every foundation taking on this task could actually “get us all back to where we are, with a thousand different forms and questions.” In other words, the effort needs to be coordinated and collective. “If you started with a small, reputable group of funders,” she says, “and got them to do this process, share their questions, and really put out their results, then maybe most foundations would take this up and get to the same place about what they really need to know to make a good decision.” Then “a cross-sector guided discussion” beyond this initial group could lead to the most consistent set of changes.

On the role of evaluation in “relieving the burden on grantees,” Goldman agrees there is “value to an improved evaluation system” and thinks more work is needed to make sure “we are all assessing outcomes that are of value to assess.” This goes beyond the recommendation that foundations provide grantees with extra funding or extensive technical assistance to measure their impact, she contends. “It means a lot more communication about the reality of the work…and what measures really show progress. And we owe it to everyone to talk through what, other than charts and numbers, we can present, because numbers sometimes hide the true results. ” She argues for a “sense of realism about what can be accomplished and confidence on all sides that foundations will be good stewards of their funding and grantees will be thoughtful in their program plans.”

While Goldman agrees with the importance of improving relationships between funder and grantee, she cautions against assuming that improved relationships will necessarily make the grant application and reporting process “easier or less time consuming for the non-profit.” “In fact, it could be more burdensome for the program staff within the nonprofit,” she says, “because a lot of the current paperwork can be done by development or administrative staff, whereas relationship building generally has to be done with the program staff.” Moreover, relationship building may “take away from people going out and doing the work” and “does not necessarily mean that you have to do less paperwork just because you’re known to a funder.”

As the field considers a major streamlining effort, Goldman suggests there is a critical choice in perspective foundations must make. “You’re always going to have a few bad apples,” she says. “Do you create systems and processes to ward off the risk of bad apples? Or do you acknowledge there’s a small risk but recognize that most are not bad apples?”

Project Streamline